The Agronomists, Ep 15: John Heard and Steph Berlett on soil fertility strategies


If you’re looking at the price of fertilizer and growing conditions and wondering if it’s the year to either pull rates back or put the hammer down, this episode of The Agronomists is for you.

Host Lyndsey Smith is joined by John Heard, soil fertility specialist with Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development, and Steph Berlett, agronomy lead for Brussels Agromart, to discuss fertility planning, seed toxicity risk, feeding max yield, and managing soil nutrients for the long term.


  • After double and triple checking audio and video, and for one of them to make a quick jaunt to their office, our panelists are with us!
  • Berlett is working on crop planning, both short- and long-term as well as fertility planning
  • Heard hopes that farmers and agronomists are spending time on that planning now rather than in April or May
  • Fall fertilizer applications are already done in the west, hopefully at reasonable prices
  • Sticker shock? Is that changing fertilizer plans?
  • “I can’t afford to NOT invest in this crop,” based on premiums for a commodity or the good prices right now
  • Best time of year to purchase fertilizer, depends on when you know what you need, what part of the world you’re in. For the west, some have put in on-farm storage but in Heard’s opinion that best pricing time it’s not “set in stone”. 9x out of 10, best time is fall
  • Clip 1: Canola School – Dry soils raise the risk of fertilizer toxicity
  • Salt index, how rapidly the fertilizer dissolves in a soil is a factor. Ammonium toxicity is another factor. No root or shoot developed? Could likely be fertilizer toxicity
  • Prioritize the nutrients if you’re dealing with a dry soil and potential for toxicity. Phosphorus is number one. Nitrogen and sulfur are flexible in terms of timing
  • Is Ontario going to have enough supply coming in spring, especially with phosphorus?
  • Assuming winter wheat makes it through the winter… what’s the possibility of banding urea on established winter wheat? Even in a dry spring, nitrogen can move, but if moisture is too limited, it might not move enough. Even coverage will maximize that N use
  • How best to get that P and K to the crop? Soil moisture permitting and yields, make sure covering what’s taken off the field
  • Don’t apply ammonium sulfate on snow. It will run-off with that water and is unwise, to put it nicely
  • A really good test at the end of season: zero N test strip. Heard notes for corn, < 20 lbs available N in fall, maybe ran that crop shy of N; > 50 lbs available N, possibly too much N, so nitrate (in the west). Can be a good gauge for future planning
  • Nitrogen use efficiency… the new benchmark value?
  • Traditional fertilizer recommendation rates, have they kept up? Nitrogen rate calculators are a great tool
  • What is the safe amount of MESZ to put with soybeans through an air seeder?
  • John called soybeans “rascals”
  • Clip 2: Soil School: How big crop yields impact soil nutrients
  • Nutrient export off the field by way of harvest. Is it possible to replenish that nutrient supply, when you’ve hauled really good yields off? Short-term and long-term plans are really important. Nutrient draw-downs don’t happen overnight, it’s a consistent deficit. Feeding for removal, but yields were going up; incremental building soil as yields go up
  • Organic matter is pretty darn important.
  • How much N credit would be available from hog manure incorporated and cover cropped after wheat? Hog manure contains mostly ammonium so it’s available, but the real kicker is a cover crop sucking some of that N up. More on cover crop N requirements in the future. On the other hand, if it’s a legume cover crop…  maybe more N released than taken up. In-season nitrate test.
  • Manure is heavy in N and P, but not so much in K. Need to fill the gaps and consider how immediately available those nutrients are
  • Predicting the weather…tricky
  • Budget your nutrients considering your WHOLE rotation, and be real with yourselves about what’s lacking and what’s in excess. Don’t only focus on the here and the now for this year
  • John holds up a lovely soil monolith of Red River Clay, that’s classified as a Vertisol, which means a shrinking-swelling type clay soil that can have very deep cracks in it, so big you can lose a wrench in them, and if you’re lucky, it might turn up later in your life

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