By Connor Lynch
SUNDERLAND — Farmers that want to stay profitable over a coming decade of tightening margins need to be doing regular soil testing.
In intensive cropping areas, including Southwestern Ontario, maybe as many as 50 per cent of farmers are getting testing done regularly. In other areas, it could be as low as 25 per cent, said two agronomists.
Agronomy manager for Sunderland Co-op and Certified Crop Advisor Wayne Black said that a lot of farmers stand to benefit from getting back to basics when it comes to their nutrient program. “We’re not fertilizing enough to maximize production, or we’re putting too much of a particular nutrient on the field.”
It all has to do with 4R Nutrient Certification. Introduced last year as a method to help curb runoff into the Great Lakes from Southwestern Ontario, the principles of the certification can pay off for any farmer by making their fertilizer application more efficient. Getting certified under the program requires a recent soil test, no older than four years old.
Step one? A soil test, and not your basic one either. Make sure it includes testing for micronutrients, including zinc, sulfur and boron. They’re playing an increasing role in yields, said Black. OMAFRA suggests getting a soil sample every two to three years.
Part of the push is rising crop yields. As yields have gotten higher, crops have gotten more finicky in their requirements. Micronutrients are playing a bigger role: Research from 2015 suggested that a zinc deficiency in soil meant adding phosphorus would lower yields instead of raising them.
As margins get tighter in farming over the next decade, Black said, farmers need to be willing to consider a more expensive program, if it’s a better fit for their farm.
The key is return on investment, he said. A grower looking at a fertilizer package that costs an extra 40 cents an acre, but improves returns by $10 an acre, is getting a more profitable farm out of it. “We need to be more efficient in how we use our fertilizer dollars. I want them to spend the money where it’s needed.”
Another factor is organic matter. In some parts of the province, levels are as low as two per cent. Said Black: “Do not let it slip away; you will never get it back.” Maintaining soil organic matter is going to improve everything about your crops, he said.
Soil testing isn’t the most fun job. Agris Co-op senior agronomist Dale Cowan said: “If the soil sampler had a seat and a steering wheel, a lot more of it would get done.” Samples are generally taken by hand, and farmers often hire it out. Many ag retailers offer the service, and it’s relatively inexpensive.
Producers should sample on a field by field basis, with each sample representative of no more than 25 acres. With lab costs at around $25, that’s about $1/acre. Compare that to, say, $180/acre on nutrient application, said Cowan.
Turnaround times are also a lot better than they used to be; many labs can get results back to a retailer in four business days, compared to a week or longer 20 years ago.
So why aren’t more farmers sampling? Because your crops won’t fail if you don’t, Cowan said. Farmers can get by without soil sampling. But in an era of tightening margins, with international trade disputes looming, commodity prices falling, and interest rates threatening to rise, efficiency will be even more important. Regular soil sampling is the key to that.