The Impact of 4R Nutrient Stewardship on Fertilizer Use in Canada

Meeting the rising demand for food while minimizing environmental impact and maximizing profitability is not an easy task for farmers, which is why investing and developing initiatives to prioritize the safe and sustainable use of fertilizer products remains a top priority for Fertilizer Canada.

Stratus has been collaborating with Fertilizer Canada since 2014 to measure fertilizer use practices and compare those practices against recommended nutrient timing, placement, source, and rate practices under the 4R Nutrient Stewardship program. A key objective of this research is to assess the adoption of 4R practices by Canadian farmers over time.

As major consumers of fertilizer, canola (west) and corn (east) have been included in the study every year, while other crops are included more sporadically. Typically, 1,000 to 1,300 farmers complete this survey online every year. In 2022, the Stratus survey measured fertilizer use practices for canola and spring wheat across Western Canada, barley in Manitoba, corn and soybeans in Ontario, corn in Quebec and potatoes on PEI. The focus for this summary will be on the Western Canadian results for canola.

More Farmers Are Using 4R Practices

In Western Canada, the percent of canola acres meeting both Level 1 and Level 2 compliance increased significantly in 2022. Level 1 consistency means that grower’s on-farm practices meet the requirements for 4R best management practices as defined by Fertilizer Canada. Level 2 compliance means that, in addition to meeting the Level 1 criteria, the grower also works with a 4R designated agronomist. This increase in 4R compliant acres is a positive reflection of the growing acceptance of the 4R message among Western Canadian farmers.

Crop Consultants Are Key to 4R Adoption 

Growers were also asked who they rely on to help them determine what fertilizer rates to use. When looking at the link between who made the rate decision and the percent of crop acres that meet level 1 or level 2 criteria, 4R compliance is significantly lower when fertilizer rate decisions are made on farm. This highlights the importance of retailers and crop consultants when it comes to influencing growers' fertilizer decisions.

Farmers Know About the Concept 

Familiarity with the 4R concept has also been increasing over time. Familiarity has been trending higher for the past 4 years. In 2022, 73 percent of growers in Western Canada indicated they were familiar (either very familiar or somewhat familiar) with the concept of 4R, this is quite an improvement compared to the 55 percent of growers who indicated they were familiar back in 2019.

Most Believe They Are 4R Compliant, But Have Not Had Their Plan Formally Approved

About 64 per cent of growers believe their current fertilizer practices comply with the guidelines of 4R Nutrient Stewardship. However, when asked if they had a formal 4R plan in place, only 13 percent of growers said yes. While it is positive that such a high number of growers are implementing 4R practices on their farm, there is still a gap when it comes to having those practices approved by a 4R designated agronomist.

Using 4R Practices Is More Difficult For Smaller Farms

Another gap is the awareness and use of 4R practices among smaller farms. Large farms (4000+ ac) were significantly more likely to be familiar with 4R, believe that their fertilizer practices comply with 4R and have a formal 4R plan in place compared to small farms (<2000 ac).

Cost and Logistics Are the Biggest Challenges

There are a number of reasons that could be contributing to this. Some of the main barriers for not adopting 4R practices include lack of the right equipment, the cost to prepare and implement a 4R plan, and fertilizer storage/trucking logist

It’s clear that growers in Canada are increasingly relying on 4R Nutrient Stewardship to guide their fertilizer use decisions. Further education and awareness will be important to close the gap between those who are aware of 4R and those who implement these practices on farm. The plan is to continue tracking fertilizer use and 4R practices across Canada in the years to come. Each year we see an increase in awareness and adoption of 4R practices, showing that Canadian farmers continue to do their part to increase sustainability on their farm