“Soil tests are still the best way to determine levels at the beginning of the season,’ says Doon Pauly, agronomy research scientist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
“We can determine where we’re starting from as far as the nitrate that is present in the soil and what’s there for the plant at the start of the year.”
He adds that phosphorus, potassium, and salinity don’t change much year to year.
“However, the tests show you trends over time that gives clues about your fertilizer management. If your phosphorus is gradually improving, that is a sign you’re doing a pretty good job of matching at least what you are taking off the land.”
“We hear lots of concern over nitrogen loss, so you need to consider your risk,” he explains. “Your loss potential over winter is fairly low if you are in an area where you don’t typically have saturated conditions in the spring. If your normal practice in the spring is banding ahead of time, your loss potential is relatively low. We seldom have the conditions in a lot of the province where we have saturated soils after a spring fertilization event. We are not at a high risk for nitrogen losses every year.”
He adds that there is not a lot of loss difference between a two-pass and a one-pass system. “However, the one-pass system should be comparable as long as the soil is sealing behind your application equipment, and it is giving you the seed soil separation that it is designed to.”
“If you don’t want to handle a huge amount of dry fertilizer during the seeding operation, you can design a system where you are surface applying a little bit of nitrogen or a portion of that nitrogen early in the growing season and have it work very well. Short season crops are grown here. As long as the nitrogen is in the root zone by mid-June in most of the province, you can do a lot of different application strategies.”
How the phosphorus is placed in your field depends on what has been previously done to the land.
“You will tend to see a larger effect from seed-placed phosphorus if your land is more deficient or if your phosphorus use has been less that what you have been pulling off in crops,” he adds. “You can get away with having phosphorus a little farther away from the seed if your soil tests higher, or if you have been applying a reasonable amount of phosphorus over time.”
Pauly says that the soil test for potassium is fairly reliable. “If you are above 300 lb of potassium based on zero to 6 inch sample, the chances of you seeing a benefit from fertilizing with potash are pretty slim. But, if you are below 200 lb, then the chances of you seeing a response to your potassium on your cereal crops is actually pretty good.”
“Potassium can be a benefit to land that has been silaged or had a lot of hay production. Where you are taking a lot of biomass off, potassium levels can be drawn down to the point that a chance of seeing a benefit from potassium fertilization is pretty good.”
Gaging sulphur levels in soil test samples can be difficult to determine, as it is mobile and can accumulate in so-called hot spots.
“That’s why typically I suspect most producers who are growing canola are putting down about 15 lb of sulphur per acre regardless what is found in the soil test,” he says.