Getting creative with nutrient sourcing

NASM REDUCE COSTS, IMPROVE SOIL LONGEVITY

non Agricultural source Materials (NASM) are cost effective alternatives to commercial fertilizer say some Certified Crop Advisors (CCA). For some, saving cash is enough incentive to try new things, but these nutrient planners say the real bonus of NASM are the agronomic paybacks that cash crop farmers traditionally miss out on.

When changes to the Nutrient Management Regulations came into effect last year, industrial by-products and residuals suddenly transformed from company liabilities to nutrient rich assets. Unlike previous Certificates of Approval, NASM plans focus on optimizing nutrient usages while minimizing potential environmental impacts. While a few advisors admit that heavy metals are still a serious concern with some NASM, the new regulations seem to manage these better. This new approach puts a positive spin back on nutrient resources that have suffered from years of negative press. Michael Payne, a certified NASM Plan Developer based in Perth and a retired nutrient management specialist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs, says the changes put farmers back in the driver’s seat and expects the use of alternative nutrient sources to become increasingly more popular.

“We’ve got much more emphasis on beneficial use,” says Payne. “The new regulations open up a lot of opportunities for farmers.”

But with more control, comes more responsibility Payne warns. Farmers are more obliged to ensure the information they provide to their NASM planner is accurate. They need to clearly understand the nutrient value of incoming NASM materials and how the nutrient management regulation system works. Jeff Bannerman, a certified NASM Plan Developer and CCA located in Listowel, has considerable experience at the municipal level. He says it is difficult to define the benefits of NASM in a broad sense but, in his experience, working through the challenges of planning has always provided an agronomic benefit of one kind or another.

nasm for nitrogen and phosphorous
Source materials are so widely variable that the best way to make the most use of the available nutrients is to match the material and the application rate to the intended crop needs says Bannerman. Most farmers recognize municipal biosolids as NASM but are less likely to cite examples such as ethanol plant effluent, pulp and paper by-products or food processing residuals as potential nutrient sources. Bannerman also says farmers need to remember that just as one hog producer’s manure varies from another, so do NASM producers.

“Some of these things that are considered NASM are pretty benign,” said Bannerman. “You can get some pretty good nitrogen and phosphorus values out of this stuff, depending on what it is.”

Bannerman believes NASM can be hugely beneficial to cash crop operations when properly matched to the desired output crop, particularly in meeting phosphorus needs. Since the new regulations require NASM consultants to evaluate the nutrient content of materials provided by processors, he says farmers get far more relevant information than they may have before. With the wide variety of sources that come his way, Bannerman says he can often match these products quite closely to crop input needs and only recommends supplemental fertilizer blends to top the crop off. From an agronomic perspective, Bannerman says NASM comes second only to good livestock manure.

“If you’re willing to deal with paperwork, you can get free application, free nitrogen and free phosphorous,” said Bannerman. “Why would you pay $14 per acre in fertilizer when you can get it for free?”

nasm for carbon
Tom Nicol, the first NASM Plan Developer certified in Ontario, is with Eastern Crop Doctor in Winchester and he agrees NASM are a real opportunity for farmers to save money. Unlike Bannerman, Nicol works mostly with a few large clients, particularly Strathcona Paper. Strathcona uses recycled paper fibres to produce box board products and the leftover material is composted and dispersed on local farm land. Nicol says the material is hauled and spread according to a customized NASM plan for each farm and agrees with Payne that the farmer’s discretion plays a much larger role than it used to. He says that Strathcona’s product has worked well for his farmers by increasing soil organic matter and micronutrients.

“Crops have benefited significantly over time due to the improved tilth and water retention from the increased organic matter and micronutrient levels, which are no longer limiting growth,” said Nicol.

Nicol says he likes to take advantage of another new feature of the regulations and encourages the application of NASM with agriculturally sourced materials. Because the paper products are so high in carbon content, he advises the Strathcona material be combined with nitrogen rich materials such as livestock manure to bring the carbon to nitrogen ratio down. Ideally, this combination is applied right after wheat harvest when soil microbes are highly active and fields are drier. Both Nicol and Payne remind farmers that aren’t used to spreading manure not to forget about compaction caused by the equipment applying NASM.

“Any time you move heavy equipment over your land, you’re dealing with compaction,” said Payne. “How much depends on what material you’re dealing with.”

The changes to the regulations also permit the on-farm storage of some types of NASM. If growers are interested in storing NASM they should discuss the regulatory requirements and options with a certified NASM Plan Developer.

commercial alternatives
Payne says that he is also seeing some changes by NASM generators in the management of some residuals,  particularly municipal biosolids. Generators such as the City of Guelph, Niagara Region and the City of Toronto are further processing the biosolids to a standard that meets the requirements of the federal Fertilizers Act administered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. These further processed municipal biosolids can now be marketed and managed as commercial fertilizer. This provides a grower with the opportunity to take delivery of these materials during the off season, store them the same as any other bulk fertilizer (either solid or liquid), and apply them when needed. Currently, these materials are only available in certain areas. But, as technology and attitudes change, Payne expects to see more municipalities and other NASM generators looking at further processing residuals and biosolids.

Regardless of the source of NASM being considered, Payne recommends that growers become as knowledgeable about the material and the generator as possible and discuss the options with a Certified Crop Advisor or NASM Plan Developer. •