When it comes to getting the best quality crop ... it all comes down to production and management and that starts with a soil test.

That soil test provides the base for what you have as far as nutrients in the soil to work with and then you can build off that.

Improving soil quality in semi-arid conditions was one of the presentations during the SaskSoils conference last week.

Agronomist Troy LaForge farms at Cadillac, Saskatchewan, and talked about how he's worked to build up the organic soil on his farm

When LaForge purchased the land in 2009, the soil had been farmed with little to no fertilizer, and based on a soil test at the time the organic matter was 1.4 per cent and 9 parts per million of available phosphorous.

"In 14 years, we have been able to build to a 2.2% organic matter and our phos is very high now. I'm actually starting a program to meter that (phos) back now. My goal is to have that number between 20 and 25 ppm."

Having a strong organic base is key to help carry the crop while added nutrients can also help to improve crop quality and yield.

LaForge is the head agronomist for Rack Petroleum’s Ultimate Yield Management Institute and has been doing some field-scale research on improving soil organic matter and phosphorus levels.

They focused on fields around Unity (Saskatchewan) which are known to be very productive, but they do have low phosphate levels from some of their management practices.

In 2015, they wanted to see what would happen if you mine phosphate and potassium, if you maintain it or build it, and what impact it would have on production over time.

"So we pull onto this field, we seed north and south and we have 37 different rates of phosphorus and potassium. Anywhere from zero phosphate to 100 phosphate and anywhere from zero potassium to 60 potassium. "

He says they basically end up building three different soils - low phosphate and lower potassium,  medium testing phosphate and high testing phosphate, and the same thing with the potassium. 

Then in 2020, they saw research out of Nebraska on certain soil test levels which looked at what your productivity can be and what seemed to be the limiting factor.

He notes they then went back to those same fields and seeded HWRS east and west.

What they wanted to focus on was what if you put a low rate of phosphate on a low-phosphate soil and the same for medium and high-rate soils.

LaForge says they wanted to determine where the economics sit for the grower.

They saw a variety of yields but noted what was really important was that where they applied zero phosphates for five years they got 72 bushels of hard red spring wheat with 100 lbs of nitrogen and 15 lbs of sulphur.

He says where they got the greatest yield 106 bushels was where they had applied 100 lbs of phosphate for five years. 

"But in this particular season we applied 40 lbs of phosphate. So we built a high testing soil and then applied 40 lbs of phos and we get 106 bushels."

The best thing we could do from an economics perspective was to apply 60 lbs of phosphate in that environment - it's a high-yield environment - and that 60 lbs of phosphate seems to be the optimal balance for that soil. 

LaForge is an agronomist but also farms in the Cadillac area (in southwest Saskatchewan) and has been working on building up the phosphorous and organic matter on his own farm over the years.