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The 4Rs of Fertilizer

In a year like this one, where farmers are seeding into everything from continued drought conditions that may have residual unused fertilizer, to so wet that machinery has barely made it into the field, it’s good to think about maximizing your fertilizer use, and that’s what the 4R system is all about.

Protect the Environment and Boost Crop Productivity #

Fertilizer Canada’s 4R Nutrient Stewardship program is designed to help growers achieve improved fertilizer efficiency, while at the same time boosting crop productivity and protecting the environment. The four Rs include: the Right Source; at the Right Rate; the Right Time; and the Right Place.

Cassandra Cotton is the vice-president of policy and programs for Fertilizer Canada, an industry association that represents more than 40 manufacturers, wholesalers and retail distributors of nitrogen, phosphate, and sulphur fertilizers across the country. Cotton says the ultimate goal of the 4R system is to get the most nutrients to plants without a significant amount being lost to water or environmental hazards.

“What it’s meant to do is to ensure that fertilizers and other nutrient sources are managed sustainably,” she says of the science-based system. “It’s about having a balanced supply of nutrients and making sure farmers are applying enough fertilizer to meet the needs of the plant so that you’re not losing fertilizer to the environment and essentially wasting your money because it’s not getting to the plant.”

The History of 4R #

The 4R system was developed in Canada about 15 years ago. Anyone interested in sustainable nutrient management can enroll in one of the association’s free online nutrient stewardship courses. Agronomists can become designated, allowing agri-retailers and crop advisors to help their grower customers develop and apply 4R Nutrient Stewardship grower plans and get their acres counted. Counting acres is the best way to demonstrate to customers and stakeholders what our industry is doing to be forward thinking on sustainable agriculture.

Cotton describes the 4R system as a framework to help farmers find a better way to utilize their fertilizer inputs while also highlighting the environmental and economic benefits that can be achieved by making some relatively simple changes to their fertilizer management plans. She says one of the things that makes the system effective is the fact that it doesn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach.

Instead, each of the principles seek to address factors specific not only to each farmer—but to each field. “It was developed to be flexible and very farm and field specific,” she explains. “A grower can come on the 4R plan at a variety of different levels.”

Ensuring that you have the Right Source of nutrients unique to what you’re growing, while applying the Right Rate will depend on your crop as well as what soil tests reveal about the nutrients already in the ground. Using fertilizer at the Right Time will mean waiting for snow to melt and soil to thaw in your specific area, while focusing on the Right Place means ensuring nutrients are placed below the soil and at appropriate setback distances near waterways.

Cotton says the participation of agronomists and the agri-retail community is an extremely important component of the program, since they provide a large network of extension specialists to work with farmers and are a go-to source of knowledge and information for growers.

She says the aim of the 4R system isn’t to radically change farm management practices, but to give farmers information they can use to achieve changes that can help their operations to be more successful and sustainable over time.

“It’s not about changing everything they’re doing. It’s about incremental improvements over time that can have a big environmental and economic impact,” she explains.

Affordable but Underutilized #

While yield increases are well documented, with clear improvements in crop and soil management, that’s not the only benefit the system offers. Cotton says there has probably never been a better time to join the 4R movement with fertilizer prices reaching record levels.

“The very crux of the 4R program is to provide nutrients to the plant in order to meet it’s needs. By the very nature of doing that, you’re going to see far more of an ROI on your fertilizer. It’s one of the highest input costs to farmers and is essential to growing a successful crop,” she says. “That economic piece is essential because if it makes agronomic and economic sense a farmer is going to implement it.”

While most farmers have already made their fertilizer decisions for the coming season, Cotton says one in-season change they may want to consider is a split application for applying fertilizer.

“It’s something a lot of farmers should consider looking at. It’s all about getting that fertilizer to the crop when it can uptake it best,” she adds.

Another thing Cotton recommends growers consider this season is soil testing, which she says can provide vital information on how much fertilizer should be applied as well as where and when.

“I think it’s just such an affordable and underutilized best management practice. Right now, only 30% of Western Canadian farmers are soil testing for nitrogen and that’s something we’d like to see increase. Farmers should be setting their rates based on science rather than just what they’ve done in the past.”

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