Balance your soil nutrient budget this fall through soil testing

Nitrogen prices have reached lows not seen in over a decade

If you had low yields, you may be able to cut back a bit on fertilizer for 2018, but only a soil test will tell you for sure.
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Your soil keeps a budget for nutrients, and how much you will need next year depends on how much you took out this year.

Mark Cutts. photo: Supplied

“Most of the time when it comes to assessing what soil nutrient levels might be like, typically what you can do is look at your yields,” said provincial crop specialist Mark Cutts.

“Depending on where you are in the province and what your yields are, that will definitely have an impact on what’s in the soil from a residual standpoint.”

Areas where yields were below normal — like in southern Alberta — will likely see higher nutrient levels in their soil, and vice versa where yields were above average.

“In southern Alberta, the yields were roughly 75 per cent of the five-year average, so there’s a 25 per cent decline in yield compared to normal. That tells me there should be some nutrients left in the soil,” said Cutts.

“In southern Alberta where it was drier, the warm, dry conditions obviously impacted yield, so what’s there for nutrients is definitely worth investigating.

“Central Alberta was somewhere around average, so if you applied fertilizer for your crops based on average yield, you should be in the ballpark. Up in the northeast, northwest, and the Peace, their yields are a little bit above average, so nutrients may be lower.”

That quick analysis will work in a pinch, he said, but ultimately, a soil test will give you a more reliable sense of how much nutrients are left in the soil.

“Doing a soil test and getting the actual nutrient levels is better,” said Cutts.

“Ideally — and it never works out perfectly — if you can match up the crop requirements to what’s being supplied by the soil and what’s being supplied by fertilizer, you could be a little more confident that you’re getting close to what that crop is going to require.”

By soil testing this fall, producers can start to figure out their fertilizer programs for next spring — potentially taking advantage of some cost savings along the way.

“If you can get the soil samples collected this fall, get the analysis back, and make your fertilizer plan, there’s typically an economic benefit of purchasing fertilizer at this time of the year versus paying spring prices,” said Cutts.

Across the western Prairies, nitrogen prices have reached lows not seen in over a decade.

“One retailer I talked to said it was the cheapest nitrogen prices in 15 years,” said Dan Mazier, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers.

Prices also seem to be softer for phosphate, though not nearly to the same extent as nitrogen, he said.

Having a good canola crop this year has helped sharpen attention on fertilizer, he said.

“Everybody is doing their best to get those nutrients back into the system before spring seeding.”

Figuring out exactly how much nutrients your soil actually needs is worth the $20 to $25 price of the soil test, Cutts added.

“It’s a good idea to get an idea of what’s in the system and make your fertilizer blends from there,” he said. “If you don’t soil test and just make some assumptions that nutrient levels are normal, then potentially you’re putting some fertilizer in that you don’t need to.

“Any time you’re potentially putting down more fertilizer than what you need for next year’s crop, there’s an economic component — you’re spending money on nutrients that you don’t necessarily need.”

— With files from Commodity News Service Canada

About the author


Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.



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