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Crop Planning in Tough Times

“There’s always next year.”

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It’s a mantra you’ll hear in every small-town coffee shop or gathering place around the world. Farmers are eternal optimists.  They must be.  How else do you spend money you likely have to borrow, to put a crop in the ground and then just wait, hope and pray that Mother Nature isn’t off her meds this year??  There’s no other industry, that I’m aware of, that is so full of perils, all of them leading to a level of personal and financial risk that is unimaginable in other business models.  Nothing is guaranteed. Not the sun, the rain, the lack of hail-packed thunderheads in July & August, or the price of the commodity they’re trying to grow and sell.

The current hot topic is the price of inputs. Fertilizer prices are at the forefront of conversations with almost every farmer or rancher. 

 Pesticides are taking a back seat for now, but as more guys begin talking with their retailer to plan for the coming year, they are going to be suffering from some sticker shock.  Not to mention that many products are expected to be in short supply due to production problems caused by staffing issues and access to active ingredients from overseas.

The instinctive thing to do in these situations is to spend less.  That’s just human nature.  We have a setback, and we are reluctant to stick our necks out quite so far, the next time.  The problem with spending less, and thereby putting less into our crops, is that we are immediately putting limits on what we can earn at the end of the crop cycle.  Fertilizer is often the first thing to be scrutinized as the results or effects of it can be somewhat intangible.  By intangible I mean, do you know for sure that those 5 extra lbs of nitrogen (N) resulted in increased yield, or higher protein? Did the 10 lbs of phosphate (P) result in better pea nodulation? And then there’s the fact that, for any of that to be any good at all, it still needs to rain.

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According to Wikipedia: “Liebig’s law of the minimum … is a principle developed in agricultural science by Carl Sprengel (1840) and later popularized by Justus von Liebig. It states that growth is dictated not by total resources available, but by the scarcest resource (limiting factor).”  Basically, if you’re short on one ingredient, none of the other things available will be used.  That will always result in lost yield and lost revenue.

The solution?  Well, I’m not sure that there’s an easy answer, but I can suggest one way to make sure that you’re not spending money you don’t need to, and that’s a soil test.  Once you KNOW what’s in your soil (as opposed to guessing) you can then make an educated decision as to where your fertilizer budget is best spent.

Soil tests can be arranged through many retailers and independent agronomists and are MUCH cheaper than buying fertilizer you may not need this year. With a very basic test starting at about $40 and more complex tests or multiple soil depths going up to $300+, that’s still an affordable investment.  Keep in mind that soil testing isn’t perfect, but it is SO much better than a guess.

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With poor rainfall across most of the prairies last year, and pockets that haven’t seen adequate rain in several years, expectations are that there should be a lot of nitrogen still left in the soil.  After all, there wasn’t a big crop to use it all up, and there wasn’t enough rain to leach it out of the top of the soil profile, right? Maybe.  Then again, maybe not.  There are a number of factors that can influence nitrogen levels and plant uptake, straw decomposition, soil mycorrhiza, leaching, and volatilization are just the tip of the iceberg.  Be sure to make arrangements for soil samples to be taken long before spring arrives.  Samples are best done in cool soils and you need to be ready to start seeding once it does warm up. Don’t wait!

Once you get your soil tests back, sit down with your agronomist and make a plan.  This plan will start with how many bushels of yield you’d LIKE to get and knowing how many bushels you NEED to get.  Bills come due regardless of rainfall, so make sure you’re aware of what your farm needs, financially, to be sustainable and solvent for next year.

Setting yield goals and knowing that your crop fertility plan can meet those goals is the first step. Once you know what the goals are, and what’s in your soil, then you can plan for the fertilizer blend(s) that you may need.  Be prepared to adjust fertilizer blends by crop type at the very least, and possibly by field, if really necessary.  A blanket formulation from one end of your farm to the other is rarely the best course of action and the days of 34-17-0 being the answer are long gone.

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There’s almost no end to the number of factors you could consider but start small and work your way up.  Keep in mind that fertilizer placement, timing of application and seed bed utilization can also make significant differences in how effective your fertilizer dollars are used.  There are lots of good resources out there to help you focus on the right part of these equations. Alberta Agriculture has a very good resource document that can help you figure out exactly how much fertilizer you need – Alberta Fertilizer Guide

Saskatchewan Agriculture has a whole page of topics with each macro nutrient (N, P, K, S) being addressed separately, in addition to lots of other soil and fertility issues – Soils, Fertility and Nutrients

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At the end of the day, no single plan, blend or formula will work for everyone.  Invest a little money in testing so you have an idea of where you’re starting, instead of guessing, and adjust your plans according to needs (either financially or agronomically).

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