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Farmers fine-tuning fertility for 2012

Western Canadian farmers are looking for ways to fine- tune or improve efficiency with fertilizer this coming growing season, according to producers contacted for the February Farmer Panel.

Putting more emphasis on some specific nutrients that may be lacking in the soil and also better understanding variable rate fertilizer technology are a couple of approaches farmers are taking for the 2012 growing season. And some say there are no major changes in production plans for the coming year, as they maintain rotation and crop inputs, although they are looking at new marketing opportunities for cereals this year.

Here is what farmers contacted for the February 2012 Farmer Panel had to say:

Charles Schmidt Chinook, Alta.

Charles Schmidt plans to address a lack of calcium in the soil on his east-central Alberta farm this coming growing season.

In what might be considered a reverse approach to what is commonly done with variable rate fertilizer application, Schmidt plans to focus calcium on the poorest producing soils to see if he can bring yields closer to the field average.

“Low calcium has always been a problem in many of the soils in this area,” says Schmidt, who farms in the Special Areas in eastern Alberta. “I attended some seminars in the past year and did some further investigation and I believe it is calcium that I need to address. It is not only a nutrient the plant requires, but it also helps to improve plant uptake of other nutrients.”

Schmidt, who crops about 10,000 acres near Chinook, Alta. in a 50/50 summerfallow rotation, plans to treat about 1,500 acres of the 5,000 seeded acres with a new fertilizer blend — 20-20-20-20-20 — which along with nitrogen, phosphorus, potash and sulphur, also includes calcium. The blend will also include one pound of boron and half a pound of copper. A fertilizer agent in Stettler, Alta. is supplying a pearled form of calcium that will flow better through the air seeding system rather than the powdery form of gypsum.

“Soil tests have always shown that the magnesium/potassium/calcium ratio in these soils has been off,” he says. “We have plenty of magnesium in the soil but because calcium is low, that ties up the availability of magnesium to the plant.” Calcium also helps to mitigate some of the negative impact of too much sodium in the soil, and there are patches of these high salt soils on the farm as well. On summerfallow acres Schmidt also does a fair bit of deep tilling or subsoiling to break up solenetzic layers and help mix the soil. That treatment is effective in improving soil productivity for a while, but the land needs to be treated every four to five years.

Schmidt says there is a lot of variability of yield on different fields over the farm. On subsoiled acres, for example, wheat yields can be as high as 50 bushels per acre, compared to fields that need subsoiling that may yield 35 to 40 bushels. Similarly, he can run into patches of high sodium soil where the yield drops to five bushels per acre, compared to 50 bushels in the surrounding field.

While he will continue with the subsoiling program, he is hoping that adjusting the fertility program will help correct other nutrient-related problems.

“We are really in an experimental mode with this to see if we can improve the productivity of these poorer soils,” he says. He’ll be applying the new fertilizer blend to about 1,500 acres and comparing it to his more conventional blend of 40-10-10-10 to see if there is a yield difference. And he may also use a spreader to treat some of the high-sodium patches with the new blend to see if that reduces the impact of salts.

He is hoping, too, that including copper and boron in the new fertilizer blend will help reduce the levels of ergot in wheat.

Schmidt, who uses a ConservaPak airseeding system with one-inch wide openers on 12-inch spacing, says the nitrogen will be placed below and to the side of the seed row, while the rest of the blend with calcium will be placed close to the seed.

“There is a lot of technology that improves farming, but I think there is still a lot of basic fertility we don’t understand,” he says. “Some of these products are expensive, but if you can spend an extra $10 per acre on inputs and produce an extra five bushels of wheat worth $30 that is a pretty good investment. Or if you spend $5 or $8 on micronutrients such as copper and boron and can eliminate ergot in your wheat that is significant too.”

Don Meuller Three Hills, Alta.

Don Meuller, who farms near the south-central Alberta community of Three Hills, doesn’t plan any major changes in his production practices for 2012.

Meuller, who follows a four-year rotation with wheat, barley, canola and peas says he isn’t planning changes to his crop rotation or fertility program this year.

“We have pretty consistent land here so things will be pretty much as they are,” he says. “I think there may be some new opportunities available in marketing cereals which could improve prices by 15 to 20 per cent.”

Raymond Blanchette Girouxville, Alta.

Raymond Blanchette plans to stay with a two-crop rotation of wheat and canola on his Peace River region farm at Girouxville west of Fahler.

Blanchette says he will be seeding about five quarter sections of canola and four quarter sections of hard red spring wheat again this year, and following the same fertility program.

He says it would be good to see a bit more snow this winter in his area to provide adequate spring moisture for seeding. They had some timely rainfalls last summer, which carried the crop through, but with rolling land and lighter sandier soils he could use more moisture.

One change he does hope to make is to add a PTO driven hydraulic fan to the Flexicoil air cart, which would allow him to travel a bit faster with seeding equipment in the field.

The new fan would improve seed flow on the outside runs of the Seed Master tool bar. “Right now I can seed at about 4.2 miles per hour, but if I can get that hydraulic pump for the fan I would have more pressure and be able to seed at about five m.p.h.,” he says. “I don’t want to travel any faster than that, but even that small increase in speed would mean I could probably seed another 40 to 50 acres per day which makes a difference.”

Gerrid Gust Davidson, Sask.

Gerrid Gust is gearing up his operation to try variable rate fertilizer technology on about 4,500 acres of his farm at Davidson, Sask., about half way between Saskatoon and Regina.

Gust replaced one of the three seed drills on his 14,000 acre farm with a new 80-foot Seed Master drill last fall. Outfitted with a 725 bushel tank, the drill is equipped with variable rate technology and sectional shut off control.

“We’ll be applying variable rate technology to about one-third of the farm,” he says. “Our two other drills are still in good shape so we didn’t need to replace them just yet, and we also felt it was important to phase ourselves into this technology, to get use to it and see how it works.”

The agronomy services at Western Sales Ltd. in Davidson has been working with Gust as he moves into variable rate applications. That third of the farm was soil tested; Western Sales also provided soil mapping services with Veris technology. Veris is a sensing tool that measures the EC or electrical conductivity of the soil to provide a measurement of soil texture, which helps determine areas of heavier and lighter soils.

With soil test and soil texture information, as well as yield data and other information, Western Sales will produce a fertilizer prescription that will vary the rate of fertilizer according to soil productivity over those 4,500 acres.

“The objective is to be more efficient with our fertilizer use,” says Gust. “The plan with variable rate is to put more fertilizer where it will do the most good and with sectional shut off capability there will be much less overlap. We have a lot of those pie-shaped fields so being able to reduce overlap not only saves money, but is also good for the environment as you are not over-applying nutrients in those areas.”

Although he hasn’t finalized his rotation for 2012, Gust plans to move back to a proper four-year rotation with canola, lentils, wheat and barley this coming year. He has been pushing the canola and lentil acres a bit harder due to markets, but he is excited about new marketing opportunities for wheat and barley under a new open market system.

“We have plenty of seed for all crops so it will be a matter of seeing what marketing opportunities there are in 2012,” he says. “And with wheat and barley it may not be as much about prices, as it will be about having improved cash flow and delivery opportunities.”

While he has been successful in producing malt barley most years, he wants to see what prices are available for the coming season. While malt barley in the $5.50 per bushel range isn’t bad, he says he can also produce soft white wheat for ethanol production for about the same return per acre, without quality concerns. So it may be a toss up between those two markets for cereal acres. And if the livestock industry remains strong, the feed barley market could be a viable option as well.

Jason Kehler Carman, Man.

Although Jason Kehler has been using variable rate technology (VRT) fertilizer application on his southern Manitoba for several years he will continue to fine-tune the system this coming growing season.

Kehler, who works with Farmer’s Edge to prepare variable rate fertilizer prescriptions, says he will use the technology more for applying nitrogen as opposed to all nutrients.

Last year, Kehler, who grows potatoes, corn, wheat, canola, soybeans and sometimes oats used VRT for a blend of nitrogen, phosphorus, potash and other nutrients. The system worked fine, but to maintain adequate potash and phosphorus levels in the soil he says he will apply a blanket rate of those nutrients this year.

“Corn and potatoes and canola all need a lot of phosphorus and I was just concerned that with the variable rate we might not have been putting enough on,” says Kehler. “The soil test showed we were a bit low, so while none of the nutrients are cheap, I think I’ll apply just a standard rate of phosphorus to ensure those levels are adequate and use the variable rate for nitrogen.

“But overall VRT has worked quite well,” he says. “Probably as most people find, we’re not using any less fertilizer and in some cases more, but overall our crop yields are more even over a field. We have areas of lighter soils and heavier soils…and the yields are much more even and overall higher than before.”

On the airseeding system, Kehler carries nutrients in a John Deere 1910 three-compartment cart. Because he finds granular nitrogen on its own doesn’t always flow evenly through the system, he combines nitrogen and potash and some other nutrients in one compartment, carries phosphorus in a second compartment and seed in a third compartment.

He uses the variable rate application primarily on potatoes, corn and wheat. He says it would work well with canola too, but prefers to use a blanket fertilizer rate with canola.

“We farm in the Red River Valley and we can have some stretches in June, July and even in August when it’s extremely hot,” says Kehler. “If we get a real hot spell with canola we can loose half our yield to heat blast. So with canola I think there are several other factors which can affect yield any given year as much or more so than nutrients. So a blanket fertilizer rate works well.”

Kehler says while he had been moving away from including wheat in rotation in recent years, now that it appears there will be an open market for wheat and barley in 2012, he may include more wheat in rotation this year.

One other change in 2012 is to use fertigation (fertilizer in the irrigation system) to provide some of the nutrients to potatoes. He will apply about half the nitrogen and other nutrients the crop needs at time of seeding and then top dress nutrients during the growing season through fertigation.

“The big advantage there, particularly with potatoes, is to apply the nutrients when they are needed,” says Kehler. “I have been thinking about using fertigation for some time, but this year is it.” †

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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