Switching to 4R is easier than you think
See what goes into a fertility plan with a 4R-designated agronomist
If you work with a market development agronomist from Cargill they have probably talked your ear off about 4R. There’s a good reason for it. This nutrient stewardship program is important to us because it directly impacts our two customer groups: farmers like you and grain buyers worldwide.
Food processors and end users are paying close attention to how their ingredients are grown. Fertilizer is one of the more significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. If we can show how Western Canadian agriculture is actively working to reduce emissions, it improves the brand and value of Canadian grain.
At the farm level, a 4R plan ensures your crops use the fertilizer products you apply each year. You don’t want to see your investment go down the drain because of volatilization (aka “gassing off”), leaching or tie-up.
You can get a 4R plan for your acres by working with the 4R-designated agronomist at your local Cargill retailer. Here’s what you can expect from the collaboration.
A 4R-designated agronomist offers something extra
Many different experts can give you a fertility plan, but a 4R-designated agronomist brings something extra to the table. It’s more than the training they receive through Fertilizer Canada’s 4R Nutrient Stewardship program – it’s passion. I’m fanatical about fertilizer, which means I go beyond a soil test to look at all the factors in a field and on a farm. I’ll collaborate with farmers over the long run to incrementally improve the soil and their profitability.
I sometimes say that if I were farming, I’d put the bulk of my crop input investment into quality seed and fertilizer. All your yield potential is in that little bundle of proteins and carbohydrates. After seed, fertilizer has the biggest impact on yield. The right fertilizer product, put in the right place, at the right time, at the right rate will turn those seeds into a vigorous crop that can outcompete the stresses of the season.
Everyone can bring 4R to their farm because it’s often a small change
Some farmers think switching to 4R means completely overhauling the fertilizer program they’ve always used on their farm. That’s rarely the case. Often we just tweak a few components of their current program to improve the fertilizer ROI. If we adjust the fertilizer ratios (like adding more phosphorous), placement (like banding instead of floating) or product (such as slow-release nitrogen like ESN® instead of urea) we can get better results.
Russel Booth and his brother Brent farm 2,700 acres north of Lloydminster, Alberta. They started working with me in 2019. Here’s what Russ had to say about implementing their 4R plan:
We’ve been soil testing on our farm for many years, and we thought we were replacing the nutrients we took out. But we were running into troubles with our drill: we couldn’t get enough fertilizer on the field without slowing down the operation. Kelsey showed us some deficiencies in our fertilizer program and made some suggestions to speed up the application using the equipment we had on the farm.
In 2019, we started broadcasting nitrogen and potash with our Valmar air applicator, then following it with our drill to cover the soil within a few hours to reduce the risk of gassing off. We had excellent yields in 2019, and our crops fared well despite heavy rain in 2020, so I feel we have the right plan in place.
Land in my area is very competitive. We can't acquire more acres for the farm; we have to grow more on the land we have. Our plan is to feed the crop to meet higher yield expectations, rebuild our nutrient bank when fertilizer prices are good and do things in as environmentally-friendly a way as possible.
4R planning is a repeat business
About 90% of the farmers who did 4R plans with me last year want to again, and I’ve signed up 100 more fields to be soil sampled. Different farmers see different advantages to the plan. Sometimes it's more yield. Sometimes it’s better logistics that reduce the stress of application timing. Sometimes it’s feeling confident that they know what’s happening in the soil and have a long-term strategy.
So what goes into the 4R planning process?
We start by collecting approximately 20 core soil samples from each field. We sample at two depths: the topsoil, which is the top 6 inches, then the subsoil below that. When we’re sampling, we avoid abnormal spots in the field like knolls, low spots and peat areas, as they can throw off the test results. We mix all the topsoil cores and all the subsoil cores to create two large composite samples that represent the whole field. Then we send it to a third-party lab for testing.
When the soil test results come back, we look at the cation exchange capacity, pH, salinity and organic matter to understand how productive the soil is in each field and its potential. We also look at the macro and micronutrient levels.
Next, we sit down with the farmer to review the findings. This meeting can take a couple of hours the first go-round because we’ll discuss yield targets and relate that back to the potential of each field. We talk about existing fertilizer programs, equipment, how the farmer likes to place the fertilizer, when they want to take delivery of it, and if they have the bin space to store it on farm.
Finally, I share my dream blend, and we’ll adjust it based on cost and logistics until we get to a solution that works for the farmer.
I’ll check in throughout the growing season to see how the crop responds to the new plan. In the fall, we can sample again, compare the year-over-year soil test results, discuss what we saw in the field and make adjustments to keep improving.
Cargill has 4R-designed agronomists at 90% of our locations across the Prairies, and it will be at 100% soon. This is one of the reasons the Canadian Agri-Retailers Association gave us a 4R stewardship award in 2019. If you think this is the year to make your acres 4R acres, give us a call.
ESN is a registered trademark of Nutrien Ltd.