Lower canola prices will force growers to rethink their fertilizer investments and focus on inputs that provide a proven return on investment. For canola, those nutrients are nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur.
At the FarmTech Conference in Edmonton in January, I moderated a panel that included all eight Canola Council of Canada agronomy specialists along with five other industry experts. During a discussion on fertilizer investment, I asked the panel, “If canola growers are budgeting an extra $10 per acre for fertilizer, what should they spend it on?” The panel quickly corrected me, suggesting that growers were more likely to trim budgets this year, so I rephrased the question accordingly.
Murray Hartman, oilseed specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development and one of the expert guests on the panel, said potassium is the least likely to show a return. Most soils are still high in potassium, and unless cereals are showing clear signs of deficiency, potassium fertilizer is unlikely to have a significant economic benefit for canola, he said.
“Tighter margins always force growers to go back to the basics when it comes to fertilizer and other inputs,” says Dan Orchard, agronomy specialist with the Canola Council of Canada. “The 4 Rs of fertilizer use efficiency may be considered “the basics,” but they will improve profitability every year, no matter what the price of canola might be.”
What are the 4 Rs?
The 4 Rs, as described by the Canadian Fertilizer Institute and other crop nutrition organizations, are the right fertilizer source at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place.
Right source: Elemental sulphur is not the right product for spring application. Agrotain-treated urea, for example, might be better than untreated urea for fall applications of nitrogen.
Right rate: Are phosphorus rates based on minimum crop needs, or long-term maintenance? Is it time to re-evaluate nitrogen rates given the higher yield potential of new hybrids? (More on that below.) These are some rate considerations as growers strive for higher profits.
Right time: This can vary by product. At or before seeding is often more efficient than fall application or in-crop top up, but growers will also consider fertilizer costs for fall versus spring and the logistics of applying all their fertilizer at seeding.
Right place: The only fertilizer that has benefit when it comes to seed placement is phosphate. All other nutrients should go in a band away from the seed row.
Adhering to the 4 Rs as closely as possible will help efficiencies, the environment, and ultimately economics. “It’s important to evaluate all 4 Rs, not just one or two,” says Orchard. Take elemental sulphur for example. “The right place and the right rate are not enough to meet crop needs if elemental sulphur is used at the time of seeding, which would be the wrong product for that timing,” he says. “This could lead to serious sulphur deficiencies and yield loss if many areas of the field are sulphur deficient.”
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The Canola Council of Canada has three basic starting points for canola crop nutrition.
1. Put only phosphate in the seed row. All other fertilizer should go outside the seed row. Safe and effective seed-placed rates of phosphate are generally around 20 lb./ac. of actual phosphate. With lighter soils, dry conditions and very low seed-bed utilization (SBU), the 20 lb./ac. rate could cause some reduction in emergence.
The 4 Rs for phosphate — Right source: phosphate is phosphate and all inorganic forms are useful if adhering to the remaining Rs. Right rate: 20 lb./ac. provides enough prills or droplets for each seed to have relatively good access, and 40 lb./ac. is probably the maximum safe rate as long as soils are moist. Right time: Place safe amounts in the row. Band the remainder. Right place: Seed row.
2. Apply some sulphur. Canola has a high need for sulphur, and sulphur deficiencies can lead to costly yield loss. Even if a composite soil test says a field is sufficient in sulphur overall, unless you have sampled enough sites to be convinced your sample can represent the entire field, some sulphur is recommended to meet basic needs for all acres. Sulphur is highly available across a field.
The 4 Rs for sulphur — Right source: Sulphate is plant available and most suitable for spring applications. Right rate: 10 to 20 lb./ac. is suitable if the composite soil test says overall supply is sufficient — 20 lb./ac. or more in every area of the field. If soil tests indicate sulphur deficiency, growers may use 20 to 30 lb./ac., but rarely would anyone apply more than that. Right time: Have it in place before the crop needs it. Sulphate can be broadcast in spring or fall. Application at seeding can reduce field passes. Right place: Anywhere outside the seed row. Sulphur can go in the banded nitrogen blend or broadcast.
3. Use a rate of nitrogen that makes economic sense based on the yield potential for the soil and region. A recent study led by Bob Blackshaw with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge, Alta., found that current nitrogen rates may not match the yield potential of today’s hybrids. A summary of the study stated that canola yield responded positively to the 150 per cent fertilizer rate versus the recommended 100 per cent rate in about half the cases. “The question for growers is whether an increase in nitrogen rates will provide a positive increase in per-bushel profits,” Orchard says. “This is something to evaluate each year, based on crop price outlooks. For 2014, nitrogen calculators may not suggest a pedal-to-the-metal approach to N inputs.”
The 4 Rs for nitrogen depend a lot on the individual grower’s system and appetite for risk. Right source: Urea, UAN, or anhydrous ammonia. Each has its benefits and most farms have made a choice based on which fits best with their seeding systems. Right rate: It might be higher than you think, but the decision to increase rates depends on the rate of return for that next 10 lb./ac. of nitrogen. Right time: Spring placement has the lowest risk for loss compared to fall, but fall application may present an economic advantage. Time, supply, logistics, and weather influence the decision for each grower. Right place: Limit nitrogen in the seed row, and make sure it’s available when and where the crop needs it.
“We know there are limitations — such as equipment cost and availability, time management in spring, risk management and weather — that can make it a challenge to always achieve the ultimate 4 Rs,” Orchard says. “What we want is for growers to use the 4 R concepts to find improvements that are practical and realistic and provide a clear benefit to their bottom line.”