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4R Nutrient Stewardship: managing fertilizer application for on-farm economics and the environment

Fertilizer Canada

The 4R Nutrient Stewardship is a program to help farmers better utilize fertilizer to improve on-farm economics, crop productivity and fertilizer efficiency while benefiting the environment. The program’s principles focus on using the Right Source @ the Right Rate, Right Time, Right Place®.

Selecting the right source of nutrient ensures a balanced supply of essential plant nutrients. The right rate takes into consideration the availability of nutrients from all sources (e.g., livestock manures, commercial fertilizers and atmospheric nitrogen fixed by legumes) and applying fertilizer to meet crop requirements while accounting for the nutrients already in the soil. This step also includes soil testing to ensure your crops have access to the exact nutrients they need. The right time ensures fertilizer is available at the optimal time for uptake, taking the weather and crop type into account. Finally, the right place means ensuring nutrients are applied where they can be taken up by growing roots when needed, avoiding environmental loss and respecting recommended setback distances for nutrient applications near waterways. Adopting 4R Nutrient Stewardship has many benefits for farmers. Good crop and soil management practices are well documented to correlate with higher crop yields and can improve on-farm economics by purchasing only the input needed to optimize crops. Improving fertilizer efficiency increases the yield per acre for each unit of nutrient applied, without sacrificing yield potential.

4R Nutrient Stewardship also helps to reduce farmers’ environmental footprint. Adopting the program contributes to the increased efficiency of fertilizer inputs. As well, keeping the nutrients in the field’s boundaries and crop rooting zone greatly reduces the amount that escapes into the environment through waterways or through greenhouse gas emissions. 4R Nutrient Stewardship is environmentally and economically beneficial for Alberta farmers. The 4R Nutrient Stewardship can result in benefits from $9 to $87 per acre (Heaney, 2013)1. Implementation of the sustainable practices can also result in a 15 to 25 per cent decrease in nitrous oxide emissions (Nitrous Oxide Emission Reduction Protocol, 2008-2015)2.

As the government puts a heavy focus on GHG emissions in Canadian agriculture, it is important farmers continue to demonstrate they are the best stewards of the land when it comes to managing crop inputs such as fertilizer. Provincial and federal industry organizations have put a focus on showcasing this through the national 4R Designation Program.

The 4R Designation Program was launched in 2017, with the intent on creating a registry of acres which are following a 4R Nutrient Stewardship and have been reviewed and signed-off by a Professional Agrologist or Certified Crop Adviser.

In 2021, Alberta reported nearly one and a half million acres through the registry, though we know in major crops such as wheat and canola, there are well over seven million acres following basic 4R principles in the province that are not being reported.

So how do you get your acres verified under the 4R Registry?

Step 1: Find a local agronomist/agri-retailer who is under the 4R Designation Program

Both independent and agri-retailer sites are eligible to become 4R Designated and submit acres if they have either a Certified Crop Advisor or Professional Agrologist on staff. A list of current groups with the 4R Designation Status can be found at fertilizercanada.ca. If your local agronomist is not under the Designation Program, they can email 4rdesignated@fertilizercanada.ca to inquire about having acres counted.

Step 2: Work to develop a 4R Nutrient Management plan

Working with a 4R designated agronomist, the farmer works to establish a nutrient management plan tailored to their operation. Many farmers are already well on their way to following 4R Nutrient Stewardship and often the changes made on farm are small. Once a plan is completed and reviewed as following 4R principles, all acres under that farming operation are eligible for submission to the database. The only data being publicly shared is acres and the province they are under.

By participating in the 4R Nutrient Stewardship and getting your acres counted you are demonstrating to government and Canadians that Alberta farmers are forward-thinking on sustainable agriculture. You are doing your part to help the planet, your community, and your bottom line.

Visit fertilizercanada.ca to learn more and get involved.

References

1 Heaney, D. (2013, May). An Economic Analysis of Farming4RLand program in Alberta. Fertilizer Canada.
2 Agriculture and Rural Development. (2014, July 1). Agricultural carbon offsets: information for Alberta’s offset market.