ATP gave nutrients a chance to show what they could do at its Canola 100 plot at the Ag In Motion farm show near Saskatoon last July.
First, there were the nutrients ATP put down with the drill. In the seed row: 20 pounds of phosphorus per acre, two pounds of zinc, a half pound of copper, a pound of manganese and a pound of boron. At the same time, in the mid-row band, they put down 105 pounds of nitrogen, 55 pounds of phosphorus, 50 pounds of potassium and 40 pounds of sulfur.
“That was as much as the equipment could handle,” said Jarrett Chambers, president of ATP.
And that was only the beginning.
Piling on the nitrogen
“If all the data’s accurate,” said Chambers, “to grow 100 bushels of canola you need 330 pounds of nitrogen.” ATP got as close as they could to that figure.
After the initial 105 pounds that went in with the drill, Chambers said, “we top-dressed with granular urea at rosette stage, just prior to bolting.” At this step, they added another 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre.
“The rest of our nitrogen came through the sprayer,” said Dan Owen, ATP’s production innovation lead. Altogether, they made six passes during the growing season, adding five pounds of nitrogen per acre each time.
Then, there was one last pass at early flowering — this time adding 20 pounds per acre.
“We stopped at 215 pounds,” Owen said. “Ideally we were going to put it all down at the time of planting, but between technology limitations and equipment limitations, we did the split.”
While split nitrogen applications are becoming more common here, they aren’t yet standard practice on the Canadian Prairies. However, “top dressing nitrogen is very common on broad acre crops in other parts of the world,” Chambers says. “It may be newer to Western Canada but it’s really not new at all.”
Nitrogen is a big part of ATP’s approach to pulling in high canola yields, but it’s not the whole story. To determine which nutrients and micro-nutrients the plants needed, they turned to tissue tests.
ATP took tissue samples at three different times during the summer. Each time, they took two samples: one from the plant’s new growth, and one from the old growth.
“That gives us the opportunity to see what’s going to happen with some of the more mobile nutrients in the plant before we get to a point of deficiency,” Owen says.
“It was important for us to know what was going on in the plant. The downside with tissue sampling new growth all of the time is you’re not actually seeing what’s happening within the plant. Is that plant moving nutrients from its older leaves to support the new growth, or is it still actually accessing it through its roots?”
If a plant is nutrient-deficient, it will move mobile nutrients from the old growth to support the new growth. In late summer, Chambers says, it’s not uncommon to see a crop dying from the bottom leaves, upwards. “That’s a sign that there is potentially something happening within the nutritional status of the plant. It shows that plant is remobilizing from those bottom leaves, and cannibalizing itself. So if we want to hit maximum genetic potential, we need to keep that crop green all through the season.”
Not all nutrients behave the same way within the plant. Tissue tests need to be analyzed according to nutrient mobility.
For example, boron is relatively immobile within the plant. If your boron concentration is marginal in the lower leaves early in the season, Chambers says, “you’ll be deficient in your upper leaves later in the season.”
Nitrogen is mobile within the plant. “If you ever see your lower leaves, early on, have a lower concentration than your upper leaves,” Chambers says, “you’re going to going to be in trouble when it comes to filling.”
“If we can keep these nutrients uniform in the lower leaves and the upper leaves,” then we’re doing the right thing. “We’ll actually manage the crop that way.”
As well, Chambers says, keep in mind that tissue sample is only a measurement of concentration in the leaf. He’s seen many examples where a shorter plant — a plant that’s off-colour and stunted — shows a higher nutrient content than the tall, healthier plant next to it. “This happens because the same amount of nutrient is concentrated over a smaller amount of biomass. The actual uptake on the plant that’s stunted is significantly lower.”
Like farmers across the Prairies, Chambers and Owen were disappointed when snow fell before the AIM Canola 100 plots could be harvested. While there are no yield results from any of these plots, ATP did have a chance to get a good look at their crop while it was still in the field.
Owen flew a drone over the plot sites, and he says ATP’s plot compared favourably to the other plots. “You could actually see the thickness of the crop from the air, which was quite cool.”
Later in the season, he says, “you could actually see what looked to be a heavier pod canopy on the crop. Where some of the crops you could still see a little bit of dirt through the canopy. The plot we had was a lot thicker, a darker green. It set itself off to be a high-yielding crop.”
ATP had planned to straight cut their plot. Owen expected straight cutting to give them a yield increase of six to eight bushels per acre.
Given the high cost per acre of this nutrient-heavy approach, Chambers and Owen don’t really recommend trying this at home. Economic calculations aren’t part of the Canola 100 Challenge — the goal of the challenge is to find ways to increase yields, and look at what’s possible. And, Chambers points out, “We’re never going to save our way to prosperity.”
Tissue testing is a great way to find out what nutrients your plants are lacking. But it takes time to gather the sample, send it away, and wait for results.
Now ATP has an instant, simple way to test plants’ manganese content.
“It’s the only real-time in-field tester of a nutrient that exists,” says ATP’s president Jarrett Chambers. With this tester, farmers can pick a leaf, test it while they’re in the field, and find out on the spot if the plant is short of manganese.
ATP has been working with this nutrient tester, NutriScan, for a couple of years. They’ve imported it from Denmark, and are developing it for the Canadian market. For now, NutriScan only tests manganese, but Chambers says, “the developer is expanding to more nutrients.”
For now, the approximate retail price is about $4,000.