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Going forward with a 4R nutrient plan

Doing the right thing with nutrients can save money, boost yields and protect the environment

You’ve probably heard of it, and you might even be practising it. If so, you might want to advertise it to customers and the general public. If you’re not practising it, you may be missing an opportunity to save some money and gain some yield.

“It” is Fertilizer Canada’s (FC) ‘4R’ Nutrient Stewardship. The program is a framework for efficient nutrient management, scientifically designed to increase crop yields while minimizing nutrient losses to the environment. It helps address environmental concerns, including soil conservation, nutrient runoff and greenhouse gas emissions.

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4R is short for Right Source, at the Right Rate, Right Time and in the Right Place, but each ‘R’ is different for every farm if not every field. Since factors such as soil, climate, crops, application rates and timing vary greatly across the country, 4R programs are tailored to and delivered in every province.

“Increasing interest in developing and implementing 4R Plans has led to questions concerning what are considered best management practices,” says Fertilizer Canada president and CEO Garth Whyte. “While there is no one right answer to those questions, Fertilizer Canada, in consultation with industry experts from across Canada, has developed regional guidance tables.”

FC currently has agreements with five provinces (Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and P.E.I.) to increase the awareness and adoption of 4R, but Whyte says it’s functioning in some capacity in all major crop-producing provinces and FC is looking to sign a formal agreement with the Alberta government in 2020.

In practice, 4R is already well underway in that province. In 2013, FC partnered with Lakeland College in Vermilion to incorporate 4R into its ag program. It has also worked with the Agricultural Research Extension Council of Alberta (ARECA) to incorporate 4R planning into its research studies and to add 4R as a component of the Alberta Environmental Farm Plan (AEFP). Whyte says FC is ready to use the revised AEFP as an example for a potential national environmental farm plan.

A sample of a 4R nutrient plan between the grower and agronomist. photo: Supplied

A 4R Nutrient Management Specialty certification program has been established for certified crop advisors (CCAs). It is already established in Ontario, was launched by the Prairie CCA board in 2019 and will be launched with the Atlantic CCA board in 2021. In total, 33 per cent of all CCAs across North America already have 4R certification.

Grower benefits

FC has gathered voluntary fertilizer use data from surveying over 3,000 Canadian growers since 2014.

“Latest results indicate that 61 per cent of farmers have reported awareness of 4R representing 45 million acres of cropland, the number of farmers very familiar with 4R has almost doubled since 2014, and on average, 70 per cent of Canadian crop acres are operating under the principles of 4R,” Whyte says.

However, only 31 per cent of growers who practice 4R are aware they are operating under the program.

“The next challenge for our industry is to verify these acres under agronomy programs developed in partnership with the agri-retail industry, so we can share the story of sustainable agriculture in Canada.”

For producers, 4R practices obviously improve efficiencies and save costs, with estimated benefits of up to $87 per acre.

Whyte advises growers to ask their agri-retailers and/or crop advisors for advice on best 4R practices to ensure they are getting the best use of their fertilizer inputs.

While he says he is not aware of any grain or oilseed buyers currently paying premiums or requiring 4R participation in their responsible-sourcing programs, FC is working with several sustainability platforms to ensure that 4R is incorporated as the standard in their nutrient-management sections.

“For example, we are engaged with the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops which is developing a Grains Code of Practice, a voluntary tool for Canadian grain farmers to demonstrate sustainability,” Whyte says. “It is intended that this code would help alleviate issues that cause market access constraints and public trust concerns going forward. Additionally, on behalf of industry and growers, we support convergence of sustainability platforms where possible to reduce potential confusion and duplicative efforts.”

Since nitrogen fertilizer production contributes to greenhouse gas, 4R can be used to mitigate climate change. Whyte says the Made-in-Saskatchewan Climate Change Strategy has a target of 25 per cent of cropping acres under 4R management by 2025. Manitoba also highlights the 4R Climate-Smart Strategy as a recommended part of achieving its 2018-22 emission-reduction goals, and 4R is also referred to in the Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan and Great Lakes 2030 Report. At an international level, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’, the World Business Council and the International Joint Commission have endorsed the 4R framework as a measure for sustainable nutrient management.

Increasing awareness

In 2020, FC aims to achieve federal endorsement of 4R Nutrient Stewardship as the standard for sustainable nutrient management and to increase the acreage under its 4R Designation and 4R Certification programs. It will also work to increase awareness and measurable uptake of 4R through its ongoing Fertilizer Use Survey and through expanded partnerships with grower organizations. The Canadian Canola Growers, for example, has already set a goal of having 90 per cent of canola acres under 4R Stewardship by 2025.

“Farmers invest over $5 billion a year on fertilizer products to grow healthy and nutritious food to feed our growing global population,” Whyte says. “Many growers are already practising 4R, but participating in the program allows them to communicate to customers, governments, and their communities that they are sustainable.”

Taking 4R to the next step

The 4R Nutrient Stewardship program operates through retailers in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

In Ontario and P.E.I., Fertilizer Canada has taken 4R to another step with a voluntary certification program for dealers. To become 4R certified, they must complete a third-party audit every two years. The audit evaluates how 4R nutrient stewardship practices are being applied.

Dale Cowan, senior agronomist at AGRIS Co-operative based in Chatham, Ont., served on the committee that created the certification criteria. Two of AGRIS’s 10 locations were certified last year, with the audit results pending for a third and plans to get the other seven certified in 2020. Cowan says the certification process requires demonstrating that each of 37 standards has been met. For example, in the area of training, the auditor requires attendance records and details on the subject matter that was covered in particular training sessions, along with successful testing of individual staff member’s knowledge.

“Becoming certified is important because if you look at what’s behind the program, it’s about clean water and demonstrating that we as an industry are capable of growing food sustainably,” Cowan says. “We need to be able to manage nutrients very effectively and in particular, minimize phosphorus loss. Also, for us as a company, becoming certified brings our collective expertise to a higher level to service our customers. Everything we do has 4R in mind.”

For more information on 4R Nutrient Stewardship, contact your agri-retailer or visit the Fertilizer Canada website.

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