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researchers in corn field

Advancing productivity of Canadian corn

February 27, 2019 — 

Soil scientist Mario Tenuta at the University of Manitoba is leading a team of Canadian researchers in determining how best to apply nitrogen fertilizer in corn crops in ways that not only increase yields and economic benefit for farmers but lower environmental losses and greenhouse gases.  

The Cross-Canada Agronomic and Environmental Benefit of Advanced 4R Nitrogen Management of Corn research project, part of the larger program led by the Canadian Field Crop Research Alliance, brings together Tenuta, U of M colleague Don Flaten, and researchers from multiple Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada centres, McGill University, and the University of Guelph.

“The project will help corn growers to maximize profitability and lower environmental impact through use of 4R Nitrogen practices” said Tenuta, a soil science professor in the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences at the University of Manitoba

“Corn yields have steadily increased in Manitoba and corn growers want to know how to adjust nitrogen management for Manitoba conditions.  Especially important are ways that we can balance a supply of adequate nutrition for corn as the growing season develops while not drawing down soil resources or losing valuable plant nutrients from the soil”, said Lori-Ann Kaminski, Research Manager, Manitoba Corn Growers.

Nitrogen (N) is the largest operating cost for grain corn production and may be subject to increasing costs with proposed carbon tax models.  It can also be among one of the most difficult essential plant nutrients to manage, with significant losses during and after application. Nitrogen sources containing urea can be subject to volatilization (or loss of nitrogen as ammonia gas), and once converted by soil microbes to nitrate, at risk of leaching and draining losses through water movement. Nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, can also be produced.

The four Rs refer to applying fertilizer at the Right Source, Rate, Time, and Placement.

“If investment into 4R practices by growers is to pay in the short term, there must be compelling evidence that they can get more yield from the amount of nitrogen used,” said Tenuta. “We seek to determine what it pays to use 4R practices”

Through three years of replicated plot trials at locations in Manitoba, Quebec, and Ontario, the team will examine increasingly sophisticated 4R practices, including using a novel approach of layering rates of N application with combinations of enhanced efficiency fertilizers, application timings, and placement methods.  Over the course of the project, they will be looking at adjusting N rates for profitability and environmental stewardship.

“The effect of 4R practices on the best economical rates of fertilizer N is often overlooked but it should change if we are using N fertilizer much more efficiently” said Tenuta.

An important second objective will be the development of tools for growers to determine in-season application rate recommendations, using hand-held spectrometers and aerial drones to estimate corn N uptake in season and response to top- and side-dressing fertilizer sources.

“Corn is a long season crop with most of its N uptake being later than that of other grain crops. This is an opportunity to monitor the crop in-season and better match demand and added fertilizer N.”

Funding for the Cross-Canada Agronomic and Environmental Benefit of Advanced 4R Nitrogen Management of Corn was announced by the Government of Canada on January 23, 2019, as part of a $4.1 million investment over five years to the Canadian Field Crop Research Alliance (CFCRA) under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership’s AgriScience Program (Projects).

The CFCRA is a not-for-profit entity founded in 2010 with an interest in advancing the genetic capacity of field crops in Canada, particularly barley, corn, oats, soybeans, and wheat. The CFCRA is a national collaboration comprised of provincial producer organizations and industry partners, including: Atlantic Grains Council; Producteurs de grains du Quebec; Grain Farmers of Ontario; Manitoba Corn Growers Association; Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers; Saskatchewan Pulse Growers; Prairie Oat Growers Association; SeCan; and FP Genetics. In addition, Fertilizer Canada, Nutrien Inc. and KOCH Agronomic Services are supporting the 4R N project led by Dr. Tenuta.

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