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Nutrient Management on

Organic Farms
...............................

Anne Kirk
Manitoba Agriculture
Prior to Transition

1) Gain knowledge
• Field production, marketing
• Learn organic standards
• Differences between conventional and
organic production (expectations)
Prior to Transition

2) Make a plan
• Soil fertility management (soil test)
• Timelines for transition
• Expected crop rotations
Managing nutrients before transition
• Nitrogen
– Often limiting in organic rotations
– Maintain good N levels prior to transition
– Mobile in soil
– High N levels = risk of leaching & excessive
weed growth
Managing nutrients before transition
• Phosphorus
– Can stock soils with P prior to transition
– Not mobile in soil
– Deficiencies typically not apparent in
transition years
Stocking P prior to transition

• “P stocked” soils result in adequate levels
of P for up to 8 years
• Most important when alfalfa hay crops
included in the rotation remove about 50-
70 kg P/ha/year compared to 30 kg
P/ha/year for wheat
Soil can be built…
Inherent soil quality – static, based on parent
geological material
Dynamic soil quality – changes in response to use
and management Carter et al. 1997
Building Healthy Soil
• Soil building = increasing the size and function of the soil
organic pool
• Organic matter is added through:
Diverse crop rotations
Cover crops
Manure additions
What is soil organic matter?
• The fraction of the soil that consists of plant or
animal tissue in various stages of decomposition
• 1-10% = raw plant residues and microorganisms
• 10-40% = active organic fraction
• 40-60% = stable organic matter (humus)
• Active fraction has the most influence on soil
fertility
• Stable fraction contributes to nutrient holding
capacity & colour
• Importance of SOM:
1) It’s a soils “nutrient bank account”
2) Impvoees soil structure, maintains tilth, and minimizes erosion

Alberta Agriculture
How much N is released?
As much as 1-3% of the organic N can be
released during the growing season
Soil Zone Organic N Pool Potentially
(lb/ac) Available N
(lb/ac)
Brown 4500-7000 45-70
D. Brown 5500-8000 55-80
Black 8000-11000 80-110
Grey 5500-8000 55-80

Slide credit: Mitch Timmerman, MB Ag
Crop Residue and Mineralization
• Depends on quantity and quality (C:N ratio) of the
residue
• If C:N < 20:1 mineralization (N release)
If C:N > 20-30:1 immobilization (N tied up)
C:N ratio
Wheat straw 70-80:1
Pea residue 30-40:1
Chickpea residue 50-70:1
Soil organic matter 10-12:1
Bacteria 4:1
Fungi 9:1
Average microbe 7-8:1
Walley and Yates, 2002

Slide credit: Mitch Timmerman, MB Ag
How do you create a high quality soil?
• Use a number of practices that add organic materials to
the soil
• Use diverse sources of organic materials
• Reduce unneeded losses of native soil organic matter
• Use practices that leave the soil protected from raindrops
and temperature extremes
• Manage soil fertility status to maintain a sufficient supply
of nutrients for plants without resulting in water pollution

Building soils for better crops – Magdoff and van Es.
Increased
biological activity
(& diversity)

Add organic matter Decomposition

Aggregation
Reduced soil borne increased
diseases, parasitic
nematodes Humus and other
growth-promoting
substances
Pore structure Nutrients
improved released

Improved tilth and Harmful
water storage substances
detoxified

HEALTHY PLANTS

Adapted from: Building Soils for Better Crops, Magdoff and van Es
Soil organic matter and biological soil quality indicators after 21 years of organic
and conventional farming – DOK Trial, FiBL, Switzerland
(Flieβback et al. 2007)

Distribution
of soil
microbial
biomass

The microbial biomass as a proportion of the total soil organic matter pool indicates
soil organic matter quality with respect to its role in supporting soil microorganisms.

The ratio of microbial carbon (Cmic) to total soil organic carbon (Corg) was higher in
the organic system as compared to the conventional. The difference was significant
down to a depth of 60 cm.
Conclusions from the DOK trial:

• Farming systems without manure had the severest loss in
soil organic matter over time
• Microbial biomass and activities enhanced in organic
systems
• Soil aggregate stability was 10-60% higher in organic plots
(positive correlation between aggregate stability &
microbial + earthworm biomass)
• Root length colonized by mycorrhizae was 40% higher in
organic compared to conventional systems
From: Mäder et al. 2002 & Flieβback et al. 2007
Glenlea Long-Term Crop Rotation, Manitoba

Brahman et al. 2016
Soil Fertility
Management Practices
1. Biological N-fixation
2. Crop rotation to optimize
nutrient availability and
Crop retention
Management
3. Manure
4. Organically approved inputs
Biological N-Fixation

Figure credit: Nape Mothapo, North Carolina State University.
Legumes are considered soil building
crops
Properly managed legumes will:
• Enhance the N-supplying power of soils
• Increase reserves of SOM
• Stimulate soil biological activity
• Improve soil structure
– Reduce soil erosion
– Increase soil aeration
– Improve soil water-holding capacity

Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture
Grain Legumes
• Valuable component to crop rotation

Fababean crop
• Fababean, pea, lentil, and soybean
very good at own N fixation

• Edible beans are less efficient
• Amount of N contribution to the whole system dependent on:
• Crop type
• Inoculation effectiveness Field Pea crop
• Crop Yield

Slide credit: Katherine Stanley, Natural Systems Agriculture, U of M
N Contribution of Legumes
N-fixation in inoculated legumes grown under
irrigation in southern Alberta
Legume Plant-N derived from the
atmosphere
(%) (lb/ac)
Alfalfa 80 267
Sweet clover 90 223
Fababean 90 267
Field pea 80 178
Lentil 80 134
Soybean 50 134
Chickpea 70 108
Field bean 50 62

Source: R.J. Rennie, AAFC, Lethbridge
Some grain legumes are better
team players!

Estimates of N contribution to the following crop from
having grain legumes crops in rotation

Grain N addition to following crop Field pea
Legume
Chickpea
Field pea 10-15 kg N/1000 kg of seed
harvested
Chickpea 3 kg N/1000 kg of seed harvested
Dry bean 1 kg N/1000 kg of seed harvested
Soybean 1 kg N/1000 kg of seed harvested
Soybean
Dry edible beans
• Legume grain crops seen as “N-sparing”

Slide credit: Katherine Stanley, Natural Systems Agriculture, U of M
Green Manure Crops
Grown to supply nutrients to subsequent crops
• Typically legumes
• Plowed in at early-full flower
Common Legume Green Manures
• Alfalfa
• Red clover
• Faba bean
• Field pea
• Lentil
• Sweetclover
• Chickling vetch
• Hairy vetch
Green Manure - Considerations

• Cost
• Cost of different green
manure seed varies – need
to balance cost/benefit
• Rotational Fit Oat + pea green manure

• Effect on soil moisture
• Ease of incorporation

Chickling vetch green manure

Slide credit: Katherine Stanley, Natural Systems Agriculture, U of M
Don’t let your green manure
become a weed!
Rotation considerations for green manures:
• Don’t use hairy vetch as a green manure before
cereals
• Don’t use Indianhead lentil green manure before a
small-seeded lentil crop
• Field pea and faba bean green manures are
typically smaller-seeded varieties of these crops
• Don’t grow sweet clover green manures if you are
planning to grow alfalfa for seed

From: Green Manure Toolkit, www.pivotandgrow.com
Green manure mixtures
• Most common mixture is a legume and
a cereal (ex. Pea/oat green manure)
• Legume mixtures provide insurance
against poor moisture conditions
• Add diversity to the system

Photo: Joanne Thiessen Martens, from Green Manure Toolkit
Green manure mixtures
Considerations:
• Choose species that complement each
other (ex. Deep and shallow roots)
• Seeding operations (one or multiple
passes?)
• Seeding rates
• Cereal = ¼-1/2 of recommended rate
• Legume = Full rate
• Termination timing

Photo: Joanne Thiessen Martens, from Green Manure Toolkit
Benefits of Legume/Cereal
Mixtures
• Cereal provides early season ground cover
• Cereal holds up the legume
• Nitrogen released by “leaky” legume roots is
captured by the cereal
• Carbon rich cereal biomass slow decomposition

Photo: Joanne Thiessen Martens, from Green Manure Toolkit
Nitrogen Supplied by Green Manure Crops

Rule of thumb
3000 lb/acre @ 3% N = 90 lb/ac
60% available in first year = 54 lb/acre
20% available in second year = 18 lb/ac
Remainder into organic matter = 18 lb/ac
N Contribution of Green Manures

Value of a green manure can vary with:
• Amount of biomass
• Green manure type
• Timing of plow-down
• Environmental conditions
N Contribution of Green Manures

Crop N Supply (lb/ac) Biomass (lb/ac)
Alfalfa 50-200 2,000-5,600
Red Clover 25-170 2,000-7,000
Sweet Clover 50-140 2,000-5,500
Fababean 75-150 3,000-6,000
Field pea 75-150 3,000-6,000
Lentil 40-75 1,500-3,000
Chickling vetch 40-100 1,500-4,000
Hairy vetch 80-250 2,300-8,000

From: Green Manure Toolkit, available at www.pivotandgrow.com
Crop Rotation to Optimize Nutrient
Availability and Retention
1) Calculate nutrient removal rates of grain and
forage crops
2) Calculate N contribution of green manure and
perennial forage crops
3) Plan crop rotation to ensure adequate fertility
throughout
Nutrient Removal

Crop (grain only) N P2O5 K2O S
Nutrient removal (lb/bushel)
Barley 0.99 0.40 0.32 0.09
Flax 2.5 0.7 0.6 0.19
Oat 0.77 0.28 0.19 0.07
Spring wheat 1.5 0.57 0.33 0.1
Alfalfa (lb/ton) 51 12 49 5.4
Bromegrass (lb/ton) 32 10 46 5
International Plant Nutrition Institute
Rotation planning – divide crops into nutrient
demand categories
1) Heavy feeders: corn, sunflowers, hemp, potatoes,
canola, winter wheat, spelt
2) Medium feeders: spring wheat, oat, fall rye, winter
barley
3) Light feeders: barley, flax, buckwheat, soybeans
Crop Rotation for N Supply

Perennial legume phases
•3-4 years perennial alfalfa
•2-3 years of grain crops (4 if a pulse)

Green manure crops
•One year in three

Cover crops
•Sweet clover or red clover
Nitrogen Supplied by Green Manure Crops

Rule of thumb
3000 lb/acre @ 3% N = 90 lb/ac
60% available in first year = 54 lb/acre
20% available in second year = 18 lb/ac
Remainder into organic matter = 18 lb/ac
Nutrient Budget:
Wheat – Flax underseeded to sweet clover – Sweet
clover green manure (2,000 – 5,500 lb/ac)
Crop N P205 K20 S
Nutrient balance (lb/ac)
Green manure +90
sweet clover • 72 lb/ac (80%) available
3,000 lb/ac @3% N over 2 years
• 18 lb/ac to soil organic
matter
Wheat (30 bu/ac) -45 -17 -10 -3
Flax (15 bu/ac) -37 -11 -9 -3

Balance -10 -28 -19 -6
Soil organic matter +8
bank
Long-term balance -2 -28 -19 -6
Nutrient Budget:
Oat – Pea – Hairy vetch/barley green manure
(2,300 – 8,000 lb/acre)
Crop N P205 K20 S
Nutrient balance (lb/ac)
Green manure +90
Hairy Vetch • 72 lb/ac (80%) available
3,000 lb/ac @3% N over 2 years
• 18 lb/ac to soil organic
matter
Oat (100 bu/ac) -77 -28 -19 -7
Pea (30 bu/ac) +20 -36 -21 0

Balance +15 -64 -40 -7
Soil organic matter +18
bank
Long-term balance +33 -64 -40 -7
Nutrient Budget:
Hemp – Barley – Pea green manure

Crop N P205 K20 S
Nutrient balance (lb/ac)
Green manure +135
Pea • 108 lb/ac (80%)
4,500 lb/ac @3% N available over 2 years
• 27 lb/ac to soil organic
matter
Hemp (800 lb/ac) -40 (grain), -200 (whole ? ? ?
plant)
Barley (45 bu/ac) -45 -18 -14 -4

Balance +23 -18 -14 -4

Soil organic matter +50
bank

Long-term balance +50 -18 -14 -4
Long-term organic study (ACS) at Scott, SK found less
of a yield reduction when legumes grown organically
60

50
YIELD (BU/ACRE)

40
ORG
30 33% HI
20 23% RED

10

0
Pea Barley
Crop Rotations for P Supply
• Prairie soils generally contain sufficient P,
but not in a form that is readily available
for plant uptake
The Phosphorus Cycle

http://extension.msstate.edu
P Deficiencies on the Prairies
Survey of organic farmers in Saskatchewan:
• Most organic farms on the prairies export grain
• On all 46 organic farms surveyed in
Saskatchewan, available P was deficient or
severely deficient
• Rock P applied on 8%
• Manure applied on 12%
• Penicillium bilaiae on 1% (JumpStart)
(Knight and Shirtliffe, 2003)
Crop Rotation for P Supply

Rotations including perennial legumes
•Without manure additions P will become a limitation

Green manure crops
•Can remobilize P already in soil, don’t add to P balance
P Removal (lb/bushel)
Crop (grain only) P2O5
Barley 0.40
Flax 0.7
Oat 0.28
Pea 0.7
Spring wheat 0.57
Alfalfa (lb/ton) 12
Bromegrass 10
(lb/ton)
Nutrient Budget:
Oat – Pea – Hairy vetch/barley green manure
(2,300 – 8,000 lb/acre)
Crop N P205 K20 S
Nutrient balance (lb/ac)
Green manure +90
Hairy Vetch • 72 lb/ac (80%) available
3,000 lb/ac @3% N over 2 years
• 18 lb/ac to soil organic
matter
Oat (100 bu/ac) -77 -28 -19 -7
Pea (30 bu/ac) +20 -36 -21 0

Balance +15 -64 -40 -7
Soil organic matter +18
bank
Long-term balance +33 -64 -40 -7
Alternative Cropping Systems Study – Scott, SK

Phosphorus balance:
Total P applied – P removed in seed/hay
300

250

200

150
LOW
Kg P ha-1

100 DAG
DAP
50

0

-50
Organic Reduced High
-100

Adapted from:
Malhi et al. 2002. Journal of Plant Nutrition 25:11, 2499-2520
Malhi et al. 2009. Nutr Cycl Agroecosyst 84: 1-22
Alternative Cropping Systems Study – Scott, SK
Extractable P in 0-90 cm soil layer in relation to
input levels, averaged across crop diversities
35
30
Extractable P (kg P ha-1)

25
20
15
ORG
10
RED
5 HIGH
0
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Year

Adapted from:
Malhi et al. 2002. Journal of Plant Nutrition 25:11, 2499-2520
Malhi et al. 2009. Nutr Cycl Agroecosyst 84: 1-22
Deep rooted legumes can redistribute nutrients in
the soil profile – especially important with
phosphorus
Table 5. Typical rooting depths of several green
manure crops.

Depth
Green Manure Crop
(feet)

5 to 7 Red Clover, Lupine, Radish, Turnips

Common Vetch, Mustard, Black Medic,
3 to 5
Rape

1 to 3 White Clover, Hairy Vetch

http://www.attra.org/attra-pub/covercrop.html#Nutrient

Alfalfa = 5 - 49 ft?
Rotations to promote mycorrhizal
colonization
Very mycorrhizal:
- Corn
- Flax
- Sunflower
- Peas
- Beans

Mycorrhizal:
- Wheat, oat, barley

Non-mycorrhizal:
- Canola, buckwheat, beets, wild mustard
Conventional Organic

Mycorrhizal Colonisation in Flax

W-A-A-F
Conventional
Organic
W-P-W-F

0% 20% 40% 60% 80% 100%
Percent C o lo nisat io n
Welsh 2005
Manure
• Compost before application on organic
fields (check with CB with specific
requirements)
• Levels of nutrients vary according to
source, feed, storage (analysis
recommended)
• Excellent for soil building
Manure
• Typically applied to P requirements
• High levels of soluble N tend to favour
weeds over crop
• Weed problems are reduced with
composted manure – slower nutrient
release
Acceptable Fertilizers
• Check the Organic Inputs Directory and
with your certifying body before applying
soil amendments
• Acceptable soil amendments include:
– Alfalfa meal & pellets, manure, biochar,
blood & bone meal, B, Ca, compost,
compost tea, Cu, humates, humic acid, fulvic
acid, Fe, Mg, Mn, P rock, K, S, Zn
Rock Phosphate (0-3-0)

• Very low solubility under Prairie conditions
– Not water soluble
– Soil acidity helps to dissolve the rock
phosphate (lower pH = greater availability of
P)
– High amounts of calcium bind rock P
– Most prairie soils are neutral to high pH with
high concentrations of calcium
• Phosphate fertilizers are manufactured by
treating rock P with acid to make it more
soluble
Final thoughts on nutrient
management
• Healthy soil is key to productive organic
cropping systems
• To be successful in the long term
cropping systems need to balance
nutrient removal and additions
• Phosphorus remains a big issue