Fertility and Nutrients
Soil and crop research in Western Canada
By Ross H. McKenzie PhD P. Ag.
Soil and crop research scientists across Western Canada have focused on developing improved agronomic practices including sustainable crop rotations, development of direct seeding technology, development of fertilizer and nutrient management practices and improved management to control weeds, insects and diseases.
Researchers across Western Canada and innovative Prairie farmers are setting the standard for the world in soil conservation management practices. In the past 25 years, many Prairie farmers have gradually adopted new research technologies including direct seeding of crops, which is a very sustainable cropping practice. This has led to greatly reduced soil erosion problems and improved soil conservation. Research has shown that soil organic matter levels are increasing by utilizing direct seeding management and this in turn improves soil fertility and nutrient levels.
Soil and crop scientists continue to work with farmers to focus on ways to protect and improve the land and increase crop production potential. Long-term research by the University of Alberta at the Breton Plots has been ongoing since 1930. The Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Research Centre at Lethbridge has a number of long-term cropping trials, some that were established in 1911. Research by Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (AARD) at the Bow Island Substation established in 1991, has clearly demonstrated that reduction of summerfallow frequency, adoption of direct seeding, use of commercial fertilizers, improved weed management, inclusion of forage crops and pulses in crop rotation are all important to making farms more profitable and to make farming practices more sustainable.
Soil and crop research has provided tremendous value to understanding the effects of different cropping systems on soil quality and increased crop production. It is absolutely critical we continue to conduct long-term cropping system research to understand the effects of agricultural practices in the various agro-ecological (soil and climatic areas) across the Prairies.
Sadly though, the level of soil and crop research in Western Canada has been slowly diminishing. The number of research scientists employed by AAFC has declined by almost half in the past 30 years. In spring 2013, AAFC announced potential staff layoffs of 125 people across Western Canada. That represents 10 per cent of the Western Canada AAFC staff. AAFC’s Research Centre at Winnipeg would be closed and substations at Stavely and Onefour in Alberta would be closed. Downsizing and staff reductions at AAFC are not new. In 2012, AAFC staff was reduced by 150 people in Western Canada.
In 2002 in Alberta, almost half of the former plant industry division research staff with AARD were laid off or redeployed. They were responsible for the soil and crop research across Alberta by the provincial government. At the same time, AARD crop extension staff were reduced from 45 to eight staff and further reduced to two staff by 2010. Crop research and extension in Alberta has suffered severely in the past 12 years.
In Alberta, farmers spend over $750 million annually on fertilizer. However, limited fertilizer research is ongoing in Alberta that is proportional to fertilizer use. AAFC does not have even one research scientist in Alberta dedicated to soil fertility and fertilizer research. At one time, industry took an active role in fertilizer research in Alberta. For example, Westco had a strong research program conducting fertilizer research in Alberta, as well as in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. However, this research program was terminated nine years ago. AARD had five researchers that conducted soil and fertilizer research across Alberta prior to the 2002 downsizing. After 2002, there has only been one person to conduct and co-ordinate fertilizer research for the entire province. The University of Alberta has several staff that conduct some fertilizer research, but it is mostly restricted to the Edmonton area and the university does not conduct province-wide fertilizer research.
Prairie farmers are being bombarded with new yield increasing products and practices. Scientific information often has not been conducted with new products to allow farmers to know if and when a new product or practice may result in an economic yield increase. With changes in Canada’s Fertilizer Act, registration is not required for new products. Great claims now seem to be made for various crop growth promoting and yield boosting products, micronutrient seed treatments, micronutrient fertilizers, various in-crop fertilizer practices and variable rate fertilization. For many products and practices, farmers end up using the “by guess and by golly” method to find out if a product or practice works or not. More often than not, farmers learn costly lessons when products don’t work as promised.
There is a real need for well-coordinated soil fertility and fertilizer research across Western Canada in the various unique soil and climatic areas of the Prairies. Research must be conducted by well-trained soil and agronomy researchers with AAFC, universities and provincial departments of agriculture. Agronomy research programs need to be adequately funded, have qualified technical staff, and have up-to-date field research and laboratory equipment. Researchers should not be expected to go on bended knee to research funding agencies to do “piecemeal” research – researchers should have adequate long-term funding so they can focus on research and extend their research results to farmers and industry agronomists.
For farmers to make informed decisions on the 4R’s of their fertilizer management, they need access to up-to-date research information to know when crops will or will not respond to various types of fertilizers, the optimum rates, best placement and right application timing. Having this type of information is critical for farmers to determine what
fertilizer practices are economical.
Information needed by farmers does not end at fertilizer management. Prairie-wide focused agronomy research is needed for crops in all agro-ecological areas of the Prairies. Weed, insect and disease management are important research components that need Prairie-wide co-ordinated research. Long-term crop rotation and cropping system studies are important to understand the interactions of various practices and inputs. Even basic agronomic research examining optimum seeding times and seeding rates of crops grown in each agro-ecological area need to be constantly re-evaluated and updated.
Remember that Agronomics + Economics = Optimum Crop Production! Now more than ever, if Prairie farmers are going to continue to manage their operations sustainably and profitably, they need excellent, unbiased and reliable agronomic field research that pertains to their local region. Coordinated agronomic research conducted across the Prairies is essential to achieve this goal. Soil and crop research across the Prairies needs to receive much greater attention and support to ensure a strong agricultural sector in the future.