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The Westco fertilizer story

Years of data from soil fertility tests have been collected on the Prairies. 
Now it’s time for Westco to share its data with farmers

This column is an impassioned plea to the upper management of Agrium / Crop Production Services to preserve the many years of excellent soil fertility work done by Westco.

Most graphs that show crop yields and fertilizer use in the modern era start at 1960. It was August 31, 1960 that I crawled off the Cockshutt 132 combine at Milden to attend the College of Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan. It has been a great thrill to see and experience it all.

Before the mid 1950s the fertilizer industry in Western Canada was the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company (CM&S, later Cominco, now Agrium). At first CM&S made fertilizer as a byproduct of activities at Trail, B.C.

Serious fertilizer use started in the 1960s. An early entrant in the business was Western Co-op Fertilizers Ltd. (later Westco) — originally owned by the three Prairie Pools and Federated Co-op. At first they bought fertilizer from Cominco but in 1965 built a plant in Calgary.

Westco believed strongly in research and had $0.40 a ton placed in a research fund. Some of that was available for University research; over the years I received grants from Westco.

But, this story is really about the research that Westco did itself. The program was started by Ken Nielsen. In 1966 he hired John Harapiak who was soon in charge of the research program. John established an in-house research capability with equipment and staff to conduct uniform experiments across all of the prairie provinces. In later years Rigas Karamanos carried on the work until it was discontinued a few years ago.

The research on fertilizer conducted by Westco was unique. It was better than we did at the University because they had permanent dedicated technical help. A project involved multiple experiments over multiple years and scattered over the three prairie provinces.

It was better than Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research because much of that is conducted on research farms that were on the best soil to start with and had often been doused with liberal manure in the early years.

The projects

Some specific projects I remember are:

1. A project on sustainable nitrogen fertilizer at the then Saskatchewan Wheat Pool Research Farm at Watrous, Sask. It was essentially a rate experiment with nitrogen applied annual at rates of 100+ pounds per acre. It did not run for a very long time — researchers quickly learned that for a dark brown Elstow loam soil the high rates were too much. I do not remember if pH effects were measured.

2. Urea: Deep banded versus broadcast. Just this winter I am seeing examples where folks think that broadcast urea, with or without enhancers, is a good option. Access to that data from years ago would be very valuable. Studies like that, with the range of soil and climate conditions and years involved, are just not being done any more.

3. Micronutrients. There were several studies dealing with various micronutrients, particularly copper.

4. Forage Fertilization. There was a large database on forage fertilization and on the soil affects after the forage. Some forage crops can be pigs for nutrients, so soils after forage can be very deficient in some nutrients.

And on and on. Some of the conclusions I have been quoting from memory could be suspect and should be confirmed with the actual data.

John Harapiak communicated significant results of the work through the Westco Farm Forum column in farm papers and at farm and professional meetings. Rigas Karamanos has published numerous scientific papers in Canadian journals of Soil and Plant Science.

But a wealth of information is gathering dust in file cabinets in Calgary.

It has been my opinion for years that the data should be assembled, interpreted and published in a book entitled The Westco Story.

The information would be useful to all farmers and should be preserved. As John Harapiak always said, “What is good for the farmer is good for Westco.” Of course, in today’s world the book would also be available electronically.

Any chance you get, please ask Agrium / Crop Production Services folks what they plan to do with those very precious filing cabinets. Please do not allow that valuable information to be relegated to a landfill or incinerator.

About the author

Columnist

Les Henry

J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.

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