In 2022, Alberta farmers were struck by the news of government policy restricting the use of fertilizer. The federal government announced its intentions to reduce nitrogen fertilizer-related greenhouse gas emissions by 30% to meet its 2030 environmental goals.
To many, this call to action felt out of touch with reality.
While the government promised a regional approach to this strategy, it remains to be seen what that will mean for Alberta farmers. In 2018, Alberta was the lowest producer of Nitrous oxide emissions per hectare; southern Alberta produced 0-0.5 Kg, while central and northern Alberta peaked between 0.5 ≥ 1.0 Kg. Meanwhile, in Eastern Canada, farms averaged between 1.0-1.5 Kg of Nitrous oxide emissions per hectare.
"We cannot undermine our food supply to achieve this goal. - Adrian Moens"
Those challenging this change feel that the government didn't consider the broader scope of the situation. No farmer wants to harm their land, it's no secret they respect the environment. There is good cause to reduce the use of nitrogen fertilizer for soil health, however, crops require nitrogen to grow.
"Farmers aren't putting fertilizer down willy-nilly; it's too expensive. Year-over-year it's the input that costs them the most. Farmers use nitrogen to meet the needs of the crop, so they can meet their economic needs," says Adrian Moens, owner of AJM Seeds Ltd and Farming Smarter board member.
By reducing nitrogen, farmers would see the quality and quantity of yields drop dramatically. Without the proper support, farmers would only harm themselves and the consumer if they cut inputs to match this initiative.
"It feels like [the federal government] is so hyper-focused on wanting to be the leaders of climate change, they're ignoring major hurdles in the way," Moens remarks, "we cannot undermine our food supply to achieve this goal."
The government has since increased funding in regional research towards initiatives that would help achieve its environmental goals. However, the effectiveness of these approaches remains unconfirmed and has farmers uncertain of how much support they'll receive.
In addition to replacing synthetic fertilizers with more natural options, like manure or compost, adoption of the 4R Nutrient Stewardship approach can reduce emissions while maintaining a high-performance level on-farm. While the 4R approach isn't a new concept, a 2019 Fertilizer Canada survey determined only a quarter of farmers have implemented its principles.
Keeping our environment as healthy as possible is paramount to ensuring the Canadian Ag industry thrives. Existing measures are moving the needle on emissions reductions, and there is a good question to the amount of damage current practices cause to the environment. However, it's important to identify local solutions to the problem.
Some industry professionals believe that it is always good to reevaluate our regular routines in southern Alberta. Thirty-five years ago, close to half of the dryland fields in the region were fallow ≥ the reduced tillage movement had just begun and the move to more diverse crop rotations would soon follow.
While it does feel dismissive to be told to regulate oneself without support, it could provide a useful exercise.
Rob Dunn, owner of FarmWise Inc and Farming Smarter board member, is one of the minds that thinks we could benefit from this opportunity.
"Good moisture management with no-till cropping systems changed the landscape, We were able to use that moisture along with fertilizer to increase yields and dramatically improve soil quality," says Dunn.
"However, for some of our soil types within those landscapes, the long-term use of ammonium-based fertilizers is causing a gradual decline in topsoil pH, and that could very likely affect crop production, fertilizer use efficiency, and consequently, GHG emissions."
A pH below 5.5 is considered low for optimal production (especially pulses), and over the past few years, Rob has found many soils with pH levels in the low-5 range. But the fact is, we cannot be sure about yield impacts or crop input efficiencies unless someone does the research in those affected soils.
"Our challenge is we need to better understand how our cropping systems impact soil health and, when needed, make the adjustments. Additionally, we will need to transition to farming practices that sequester more soil carbon or reduce GHG emissions. However, this requires appropriate government support.," comments Dunn.
Without support from the federal government, we are largely left to our own devices. While they offer some suggestions of what to do, many of the possibilities lack previous work and extension efforts.
Some of the areas that need investigation include integrating manure into no-till or low-tillage systems.
While there is some research into farming practices like integrating forages and cover crops for irrigated systems, there are still large gaps in other possibilities that could be explored.
Without regional knowledge, farmers cannot be certain of the effectiveness of practices and will be hesitant to change. As the adage goes, "it's not what you farm, it's where you farm." Farming Smarter hopes to provide that knowledge to southern Alberta farmers.
We encourage you to join the conversation ≥ if there is a soil health practice you would like to see explored, or a knowledgeable person you think can add to this conversation, let us know! Either by email or phone, we're always glad to hear from you!