Western agronomy research cuts

Agronomy Management: Funding cuts have left gaps in the unbiased agronomy research that Prairie farmers need

Over the past 100 years, agricultural research scientists, innovative farmers and private industry have done a remarkable job to develop and improve crop production practices across Western Canada. Advances in crop breeding, sustainable crop rotations, development of direct seeding technology, development of fertilizer and nutrient management practices and improved management to control weeds, insects and diseases have all contributed to improved crop production.

Soil and crop scientists continue to work with farmers and industry organizations to focus on ways to improve soil quality and increase crop production potential.

Research scientists

Sadly, the level of soil and crop research in Western Canada has been slowly diminishing. The number of research scientists employed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) has declined by more half in the past 30 years as research stations are closed or downsized. In 2012, AAFC staff was reduced by 150 people in Western Canada. In spring 2013, AAFC announced staff layoffs of 125 people across western Canada. Those layoffs represented 20 per cent of the Western Canada AAFC staff. Since then, the Research Centre at Winnipeg has been closed. AAFC Lethbridge Research Centre substations at Stavely and One Four in Alberta have been closed. Both substations focused on grazing management in the foothills and short prairie grasslands areas, respectively. Now, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have only six AAFC research centres to cover almost 70 million acres of annual crop production on a wide diversity of soil and climatic regions.

Downsizing and staff reductions have affected other agencies. In 2002, at Alberta Agriculture (now Alberta Agriculture and Forestry), lay offs and redeployment affected almost half of the plant industry division research staff. They were responsible for Province’s soil and crop research across Alberta. At the same time, Alberta Agriculture crop extension staff were reduced from 45 to eight, and further reduced to only two staff by 2010. Crop research and extension in Alberta has suffered severely in the past 13 years.

Prairie farmers spend about $2 billion annually on fertilizer to optimize crop production and maintain healthy, fertile soils. In Alberta, farmers spend about $750 million annually on fertilizer. Until 2001, Alberta Agriculture took the lead role in conducting and co-ordinating fertilizer and nutrient management research across the province. Five researchers that conducted soil and fertilizer research across Alberta. By 2002, there was only one person to conduct and co-ordinate fertilizer research for the entire province. Doon Pauly, my replacement when I retired in 2013, is presently the only soil scientist in Alberta with significant time devoted to fertilizer research. AAFC does not have even one research scientist in Alberta dedicated to conducting soil fertility and fertilizer research. There are a few small fertilizer studies conducted by the University of Alberta, AAFC and several applied research associations. But there is no co-ordinated provincial soil fertility and fertilizer research to update fertilizer recommendations for various crops, test new fertilizer products or address new emerging fertilizer issues.

At one time Alberta had a Soil Fertility Advisory Committee made up of researchers, industry agronomists, soil testing labs and fertilizer industry representatives. In the past, industry took an active role in fertilizer research in Alberta. For example, Westco had a strong research program conducting fertilizer research in Alberta as well as in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. However, this research program was terminated. There is no longer any ability to co-ordinate fertilizer research and fertilizer recommendations for Alberta farmers.

In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, things are a bit better. Both still have Soil Fertility Advisory Committees. But there are minimal resources to look at maintaining and updating fertilizer research information for soil testing labs to ensure farmers are getting the best, most up to date fertilizer recommendations that are based on current, local field research.

Best practices

Prairie farmers are being bombarded with new yield-increasing products and practices. Scientific research often has not been conducted with new products to allow farmers to know if and when a new product or practice may result in an economic yield increase. With changes to Canada’s Fertilizer Act, registration is not required for new products. Great claims now seem to be made for various crop growth promoting and yield boosting products, micronutrient seed treatments, micronutrient fertilizers, various in-crop fertilizer practices and variable rate fertilization. For many products and practices, farmers end up using the “by guess and by golly” method to find out if a product or practice works or not. More often than not, farmers learn costly lessons when products don’t work as promised.

There is a real need for well-co-ordinated, on-going soil fertility and fertilizer research and good agronomic research across Western Canada in the various unique soil and climatic areas of the prairies. Research must be conducted by well-trained soil and agronomy researchers with AAFC, universities and provincial ag departments. Agronomy research programs need to be adequately funded, have qualified technical staff, and have up-to-date field research and laboratory equipment. Presently, the soil and crop researchers that are left must go on bended knee to research funding agencies to do “piece meal” research. Researchers should have adequate long-term funding so they can focus on research and extend their research results to farmers and industry agronomists.

Farmers need access to up-to-date research information to know when crops will or will not respond to various types of fertilizers, optimum rates, best placement and right application timing. This information is critical for farmers to determine what fertilizer practices are economical.

Information needed by farmers does not end at fertilizer management. Prairie wide focused agronomy research is needed for crops in all agro-ecological areas of the prairies. Weed, insect and disease management are important research components that need prairie wide co-ordinated research. Long-term crop rotation and cropping system studies are important to understand the interactions of various practices and inputs. Even basic agronomic research examining optimizing seeding times and seeding rates of crops grown in each agro-ecological area need to be constantly re-evaluated and updated as crop varieties are improved and our climate gradually changes.

If Prairie farmers are going to continue to manage their operations sustainably and profitably, they need excellent, unbiased and reliable agronomic field research that pertains to their local region. Co-ordinated agronomic research conducted across the prairies is essential to achieve this goal. Soil and crop research across the Prairies needs greater attention and support to ensure a strong agricultural sector in the future.

About the author

Columnist

Ross H. McKenzie, PhD, P. Ag., is a former agronomy research scientist. He conducted soil and crop research with Alberta Agriculture for 38 years. He has also been an adjunct professor at the University of Lethbridge since 1993, teaching four-year soil management and irrigation science courses.

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