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A review of the 4Rs

Researchers often talk about the 4Rs of nutriten stewardship. Here’s a quick rundown on what they’re all about

Researchers and scientists making presentations at farm meetings often speak about 4R nutrient stewardship: using the right fertilizer at the right rate at the right time in the right place.

The International Plant Nutrition Institute, and Canadian Fertilizer Institute and other organizations are working to promote best management practices (BMPs) based on the 4Rs.

Steps to sustainability

In mid-January Dr. Dan Heaney of Random Cross Consulting gave an overview of “4R Nutrient Stewardship” during a webinar sponsored by the Canadian Fertilizer Institute (CFI) and Agri-INNOVATIONS

According to Heaney, 4R stewardship is “about the economic, social, and environmental bounds required in terms of goal setting and practices to achieve sustainable agriculture.”

During the webinar, Heaney laid out five steps to sustainability on your farm:

Step 1: Set sustainability goals.

Step 2: Gather production information.

Step 3: Formulate a 4R plan.

Step 4: Implement practice change.

Step 5: Monitor effectiveness. “Then you go back to the beginning, see if your goals were met, and what adjustments you might need.”

For example, a goal might be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as nitrous oxide. Heaney said, “Meeting this goal would revolve around changing practices on the farm. This provides economic benefits as well as environmental.”

And this, Heaney says, is the value of the 4R plan: “What the 4R plan does is link the cropping system performance to sustainable goals in a measurable, traceable, verifiable way.”

Heaney believes that on-farm sustainability programs will be increasingly important. “Big players in the food and fibre industry are moving towards sustainable supply chains, like Walmart and McDonalds — looking at thing like the carbon footprint of their supply chain, safety, workers treatment, etc.” Having a documented 4R plan will make verification simpler for farmers involved in these supply chains.

Heaney says, “In additional to looking at nutrient management, most large supply chains are also looking at what pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are being used on the farm.

Documented 4R plans can also be used to confirm regulatory compliance. “4R is also being positioned as a tool to assist with regulatory compliance, as a way farmers can show they’re using sustainable practices,” Heaney says.

Economic value of the 4Rs

Al Mussel of the George Morris Centre stressed the economics of the 4Rs as part of the webinar. When we looked at best nutrient practices, in particular for nitrogen, the benefit to the farm’s expected net incomes tends to exceed the cost. That is true especially in the areas of nutrient management planning and soil testing.

Mussel stressed the importance of the “rate” component of the 4Rs. Using the right amount of fertilizer can mean using less product, to protect the environment and lower costs, or it can mean using more nutrient to maximize your yield. Mussel said: “The last thing I would want to do, as a farmer, is look back in any given year and wish I’d put more nutrient on to get the yield I was looking for to generate my return”

Mussel expects the importance of stewardship plans like the 4Rs to grow in the future. “In the past, the focus has been around nitrogen and nitrous oxide. As we become more accustomed to the precision in which we can measure nutrient application, this will go beyond nitrogen into phosphorus and other nutrients being applied. Nitrous Oxide is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. So, as we move forward, I expect both economic and environmental benefits to grow.” †

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