By Erika Mathieu
Dr. Linda Gorim, associate professor and WGRF Chair in Cropping Systems at the University of Alberta gave a talk during Farming Smarter’s recent “Plot Hop” event.
Dr. Gorim’s presentation outlined enhanced efficiency and fertilizers, and later delved into an important conversation about the role of regionally-relevant research in drafting policies for farmers and producers.
“I think you are all aware that the Government of Canada wants to cut down fertilizer emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, and to do that there’s this huge push for us to employ 4R practices on our farms.”
The 4R practices refer to “right source, right rate, right time, and right place,” and is a framework used to guide farmers to farm management practices which keep nutrients in fields.
Gorim said of her ongoing trial grows on the Farming Smarter plots, “we know that for a very long time here on the prairies, producers have been asked to use enhanced efficiency and fertilizers.” These products which, when added to urea, or can come pre-coated on urea, are supposed to block microbes present in the soil from converting urea intended to be taken up by the crops via ammonium into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas.
“I think it’s rather sad that our environmentalists are putting that burden on the producers, the farmers,” to stop environmental catastrophe.
Gorim said, “this project is born out of the 4R (framework) but also the idea that around the world, if we look at these products, we find that all the producers who have bought these enhanced efficiency fertilizers and applied (them) in their field, have found that the bump in yield does not compensate for that additional amount of money that they have to spend,” beyond their farm, input and fertilizer costs.
Gorim’s ongoing field study is seeking data on what happens if producers reduce the amount of urea being applied and how crop yield is impacted, and also if producers add these products to urea, should they also be reducing the amount of nitrogen being applied to their fields.
Gorim said, “if these products are supposed to keep the N (nitrogen) around the crop, so the plants have it, why are we still applying the same amount of N in the presence of these products?” and said while some work has been done on this with respect to wheat, there were gaps in the research when it came to barley, specifically.
“We wanted to see how yield would be affected and do an economic analysis and see whether producers should be reducing that urea or staying where they are at the moment.”
Gorim said in speaking with regenerative farmers on the prairies who have already been trying to reduce the amount of urea applied in the fields, cutting back on urea has had dire consequences for many of these farms.
“Some of those regenerative farms – they did crash. (They) had canola coming in at two bushels per acre, and because they had cut back and cut back and cut back, they thought they could just keep cutting the fertilizer back and it led to a crash.”
She said as a scientist, she will, “not ask producers to start cutting down urea without research and that is something that I intend to investigate further.”
Executive director of Farming Smarter, Ken Coles said through his travels he has seen some of the ways environmental policies really “perturb” cropping systems.
“On the one front, I really understand the argument that farmers are being asked to farm more sustainably, but when it doesn’t provide an economic return then it’s almost the desire for some sort of an incentive, and I’ve seen the incentives also perturb the farming systems,” in cases where incentives are not backed by the appropriate science. Coles also posed the question of whether the strong environmental pressures to test things like enhanced efficiency fertilizers detract from the work that could be done on cropping systems that might also result in the same thing, (that is) being able to reduce nitrogen.
Stressing the importance of research-backed policy informed by regionally-specific data, Gorim encouraged producers to use their voice to bring a local perspective to the issue, and to challenge the implementation of blanket policy unbacked by specific local research.
She said that while the potential for reduction strategies may be okay for other parts of the world, the variance of ecological conditions across regions demands site-specific research.
Coles added policies which have been implemented in other parts of the world are being emulated and drafted for implementation across Canada. “That’s what gets us into trouble,” he said, adding that some policies relating to farming and emissions reduction enacted in Europe are heavily driven by environmental policy and public feedback, which is not necessarily, “what matters on the farm.”
Coles echoed Dr. Gorim’s assertion that Canada requires a different policy approach, and said there is opportunity for intergovernmental partnerships between federal, provincial, and even municipal governments to share in the responsibility of drafting sensible policy for agricultural producers.
“We need regional adaptability and we need regionally-relevant policy as well because we try to come up with a blanket policy for the entire country, it’s just never going to work.”