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With soil moisture conditions this August across virtually all of western Canadian farmland ranging from abnormally dry to beyond description, it might seem there isn’t much to be done to improve soil health and management until it rains.
However, while it may seem counterintuitive, agronomists and soil specialists alike say don’t forget about soil testing this fall, and pay attention to other management practices, which may help you get the most out of the soil even, or especially, under drought conditions.
It’s a message longtime research agronomist Rigas Karamanos has been reminding western Canadian farmers about for more than 40 years — get a soil test analysis done before the next cropping season.
Karamanos, currently senior agronomist with Koch Agronomic Services, says it is perhaps particularly important after a dry growing season to get a measure of soil nutrient levels.
“The first challenge this fall may be to actually get a probe into the soil,” says Karamanos. “In some areas, it is so dry it is a challenge just to collect the soil sample. But if you can, collect the soil samples from representative areas of the field and have them analyzed.
“In the days when I was manager of the Saskatchewan soil test lab, there was a sign on the wall (that said), ‘If you don’t know what’s in the soil, how can you manage it?’ And that message is still true today.”
Karamanos says the drought conditions will produce wide variability in nutrient levels across a field. He says, for example, if a farmer applied 120 pounds of nitrogen to canola and then the canola stopped growing, how much is left? Even a short crop will likely have higher levels of nutrients in the plants themselves. How much is residual in the soil? Is there a possibility that some nitrogen was lost? Depending on fertilizer placement, even one-tenth of an inch of rain or a heavy dew might have resulted in losses due to volatilization.
“Soil testing is a valuable tool, but it isn’t without its pitfalls,” says Karamanos. “But the test is still the best measure of soil nutrient levels on the farm,” he says. “The tests are working with a natural system that can have wide variability. It is estimated there are about 12 million micro-organisms living in every gram of soil. A soil test recommendation might say you need 10 pounds of a nutrient plus or minus, or you might need 50 pounds plus or minus, but at least it is an indication of where to start.”
Karamanos says it is important to properly collect a good representative soil sample from the field, and to do your homework on selecting a soil test lab that produces recommendations that best relate to your region or farming conditions.
While, ideally, soil samples should be collected and analyzed as close to seeding as possible, in reality that might mean a fall soil test. Karamanos says particularly under dry conditions, there will likely be little change in soil nutrient levels between the fall test and spring seeding. The one exception might be soil testing on pulse crop and legume stubble — those crop roots and residue will continue to mineralize nitrogen over the winter.
By knowing nutrients are in the soil after harvest and in planning fertilizer recommendations for the 2022 crop, Karamanos reminds producers to follow the 4Rs of fertilizer application — apply the right source, in the right place, at the right time and at the right rate.
And on that point, with most fertilizer recommendations based on the assumption fertilizer will be deep banded, some farmers opting to broadcast apply fertilizer might think they need to increase the fertilizer rate to compensate for potential nutrient losses. Karamanos says rather than apply 10 to 15 per cent more fertilizer, farmers should consider applying enhanced-efficiency fertilizer products, which delay the release of nutrients — those products may be more cost effective than increasing the rate, and also are more environmentally friendly.
It all starts with a proper soil test analysis this fall or in early spring to determine the residual nutrient levels in a field, but then variable-rate fertilizer technology (VRT) can really help farmers get the biggest bang for their bucks in 2022, says Garth Donald, agronomy manager with Decisive Farming, based in Alberta.
“Actually, conditions right now might be considered the perfect storm that will really demonstrate the benefits of variable-rate (technology),” says Donald. “We have an extreme drought across much of Western Canada, commodity prices are high and fertilizer prices are extremely high, so if a farmer only has so much they can invest in crop inputs, how do they get the biggest return from that budget?”
The concept behind variable-rate fertilizer technology is to apply nutrients where they will do the most good — to apply them where they have the most potential to optimize yield. It may not necessarily mean a reduction in overall fertilizer use, but more of a reallocation of what is often an expensive input onto those parts of the field that have potential to produce higher yields.
“I have worked with producers in the Peace River Region in years when they’ve been dealing with drought and variable rate really shines,” says Donald. In the spring, for example, a producer applied 120 pounds of nitrogen and then the growing season turned dry — instead of a 50- or 60-bushel crop, they only harvested 15 bushels of canola. So how much is left?
With a proper soil analysis, it showed the next growing season over the most productive areas of the field only needed 30 pounds of nitrogen applied.
“The farmers using variable rate, seeded their wheat and barley on the canola stubble and only applied the lower rate of nitrogen as indicated, and they had excellent crops that stood well,” says Donald. “Whereas, the farmers who didn’t use variable rate applied a higher flat rate of fertility over their canola stubble and ended up with wheat and barley with too much nitrogen and everything lodged flat.”
On the flip side, farmers might think there’s the same high level of residual nitrogen on their wheat and barley stubble, but that may not be so. During the dry growing season, the wheat and barley yields were reduced; however, the protein was extremely high, so the nutrients were used up. Those fields actually had much reduced levels of residual nitrogen.
Donald urges farmers to try VRT on just part of the farm. Decisive Farming has a program where they’ll do a demo and develop a variable prescription for 320 acres free of charge. “That’s really a pretty small sample, so we encourage a producer new to VRT to try it on at least 1,000 acres,” he says. “They can try it on a couple of different fields and a couple different crops, and it also helps spread risk in case there is a hail event, which might wipe out a smaller 320-acre trial.”
Dealing with compaction
No one really likes to see soil conditions so dry that the ground becomes fractured with deep cracks, but that is one way Mother Nature naturally deals with soil compaction, says Marla Riekman, a soil management specialist with Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development.
“Those cracks help to break up soil compaction at certain levels,” says Riekman, who has studied soil compaction for several years. “It may not be as obvious in sandier-type soils, but in clay loam-type soils that get wet and then dry out and crack … that is Mother Nature working to fix the problem.”
Dealing with the question of whether soil compaction is getting worse across Western Canada, Riekman says a couple of things are happening on the soil compaction front — farmers are becoming more aware of the compaction issue and the degree of compaction may be related to advancements in agricultural technology.
“I believe as equipment gets bigger and heavier it increases the risk of causing compaction just with normal criss-cross or random traffic across a field,” she says. “And as farmers look at yield maps and perhaps aerial imagery, they are seeing differences in crops and suspecting that soil compaction may be part of the problem.”
Riekman says there are two types of compaction she is seeing on Prairie cropland. There is surface compaction, directly related to tire pressure and machinery with heavier axle weights. This commonly occurs in years when equipment operates on fields when soil is wet. Afterwards, the top couple of inches of soil may be loose but if you dig down a few inches, maybe even four to six inches, often you run into a compaction layer she describes as plow pan.
“You dig down a few inches and you can run into this compacted layer, and if you dig into it the soil has a plate-like structure,” she says. “And once you get through that layer the soil is loose again.”
The other type of compaction can be much deeper in the soil, perhaps three to four feet down, and that is also the result of years of tillage or field traffic with machinery often during wet soil conditions — compaction gets pushed farther and farther down.
A dry year is a good time to try to remediate or correct soil compaction conditions. If soils are extremely dry farmers don’t have to worry about field operations making compaction worse, that only happens if soil moisture is present, Riekman adds.
She says the best tool she’s found to determine if crops are affected by at least surface compaction is a good, old-fashioned shovel. “Just do some digging,” she says. “Dig a few test holes, see how far you can go. And look at plant roots as you go. Are they fibrous and growing deep, or do they seem to get to a point a few inches down and suddenly grow sideways? That’s a good indication they are hitting that plow pan layer.”
There may not be a simple or overnight fix to soil compaction, Riekman says. Tillage or vertical tillage may be an option but some research has shown the high cost of operating equipment over a field might produce a fifty-fifty toss-up of whether the tillage generated enough increased crop growth and yield to pay for the machinery and fuel costs.
Riekman says it may be worthwhile to do your own on-farm research — treat 50 or 100 acres with the tillage, for example, and compare yields with an untreated area. Keep track of your costs and see if there is a payback.
“I also recommend trying to reduce machinery traffic in fields, especially if soil conditions are wet,” she says. With a grain cart, for example, keep most traffic on the headlands and then make a direct right-angle trip to and from the combine, rather than driving over the field at all angles. Another option with the grain cart is to follow directly behind the combine in the same tracks, and then just deke around the combine to collect a load of grain.
“It is similar to controlled-traffic farming, where you sacrifice certain areas of the field to equipment traffic, and try to avoid random traffic across a field,” Riekman says.
She also recommends increasing crop diversity, if possible, and growing different crops with different types of root systems — crops with taproots can help break up those layers of surface compaction that are a few inches below the soil surface.
According to the Prairie Cover Crop Survey conducted by Callum Morrison, about 80 per cent of Prairie producers are practising some type of cover cropping in a bid to improve soil health.
Cover crops or bust
Through good and not-so-good growing season conditions, more Prairie farmers appear to be committed to the concept of cover cropping in a bid to improve soil health, as well as to reduce soil losses from erosion.
While it would be great if the weather would co-operate fully as farmers try double cropping, intercropping and seeding a crop for ground cover after harvest, the majority of those surveyed by a University of Manitoba PhD student say they are sticking with cover cropping, no matter what the weather does.
Callum Morrison says he started with about 80 farmers responding to his first survey year, which was three years ago, and now, in the final year of his project, he has about 1,300 in total across the Prairie provinces and Ontario providing feedback. Ontario producers have been practising some version of cover cropping much longer than many farmers in Western Canada, although in some parts of the West, farmers have been cover cropping for 10 years or more.
“I am really impressed with how many farmers have responded to the Prairie Cover Crop Survey,” says Morrison, who is working with U of M professor Yvonne Lawley on the project.
Morrison says the survey shows producers have a real commitment to the soil conservation measure, and are always trying different production practices to determine which practice works the best. He says farmers have been instrumental in providing feedback to help direct survey questions.
The idea behind cover cropping is to keep something green and growing on cropland as long as possible during the growing season. Terms such as double cropping, intercropping and cover cropping cover a range of practices. Some producers will seed two crops at once with one crop being the dominant cash crop and the other being a slower forage crop, for example, which just sort of ticks along and then takes off once the cash crop is harvested.
Some farmers seed their cash crop in May, for example, and then interseed a second crop in June with the same objective in mind — once the canola, cereal or pulse crop is harvested the second crop will keep growing.
And another angle on cover cropping is to allow the main cash crop to grow and mature. Then, right after harvest, another crop is seeded, with hopes it will germinate and provide ground cover through till freeze-up. Often the second crop seeded is a winter cereal that will keep growing the following spring, or it could be a different species used for fall grazing. Some farmers even leave a half-decent stand of a volunteer crop to serve as a cover crop after harvest.
The idea is as long as you can keep something green and growing through fall, it will benefit soil health, and in a lot of cases farmers are also seeding cover crops to protect soil from fall and early-spring erosion.
Morrison says with the number of survey respondents increasing each year, it is an indication that more farmers are trying some aspect of cover cropping and sticking with it.
Are farmers making money with cover cropping? The majority of respondents say they’ve seen a moderate increase in profits, or at least no change, with less than five per cent saying they experienced a decrease in profits.
A few other emerging trends from early survey results include the following:
About 80 per cent of Prairie producers are practising some type of cover cropping in a bid to improve soil health.
About 50 per cent of respondents say they grow cover crops with fall or winter grazing in mind.
With only one or two years of experience, about 50 per cent of farmers report they already see some improvement in soil health, such as increased organic matter or reduced erosion.
Not one farmer responding to the survey checked the box that said his or her old system worked better than cover cropping.
It is more difficult to establish a cover crop in a drier year, but it is also more important because the risk of soil erosion increases during dry or drought conditions.
Farmers would like to see more research dollars invested in cover cropping practices.
And since farmers are again investing more time and money in practising cover cropping, which is a benefit to the environment, producers would really like to see some type of tax rebate or compensation for ecological goods and services that benefit society as a whole.
Morrison says the key messages of the survey will all be included in his PhD thesis he hopes to have written by early 2022.
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