What Should Farm Landowners Consider When it Comes to Fertilizing the Land?

13 March '14

Part of RentThisLand.com’s mission is to provide access to relevant news, media and expert insights about topics that impact land rental.  We want to highlight factors that landowners may find helpful, both in determining their own lease expectations, and in identifying which tenant will offer a valuable partnership in terms of the farmland’s care and maintenance - in addition to simply the offer price. Our stance about rental relationships is that the value of your land needs to be reflected in the value of your lease price, but also the quality of your tenant and their practices.

Often, this value is an outcome of what’s defined in the lease agreement itself.
We’ve teamed up with Patrick Lynch, Certified Crop Advisor, to get his expert take on some of the top considerations for farmland owners. We'll be sharing his insights in this article as well as future posts. Particularly for grain land, the soil can be compared to a bank account, where certain farm practices make withdrawals from the land, and others make deposits. As a soil and crop expert, Patrick has great insight about how the land’s value can be maximized, through best leasing practices. 
The first question we asked him is, what should landlords be thinking of when it comes to fertilizing the land? 
Patrick said:
In terms of the major nutrients the landlord doesn’t need to be too concerned about nitrogen, since most nitrogen applied will either be utilized or not available for the next crop anyway. 
The nutrients that are a big concern are phosphorous and potassium, and with these nutrients you can grow a crop and take phosphorous and potash from the soil, so it’s important that the landlords and the renter agree what type of fertility program will be followed.
One fertility program that I like is to soil tested at the start of the rental agreement, then the renter keeps track of all the fertilizer phosphates and potash that was applied, and at the end of the season records the yields. This lets you do a balance sheet fairly quickly of the amount of phosphorous and potash that was applied to the land, as well as the potash and phosphorous that was removed from the land. I like to have these numbers verified by a certified crop adviser in as much as the certified crop advisor would be like an accountant for your income tax. A certified advisor says ‘I believe the information to be correct, and here’s the balance’.  

It’s fairly easy to figure out how much phosphorous and potash have been removed by crops because there’s a standard number of the amount of phosphorous and potash. For instance, in Ontario with an average wheat yield of 80 bushels per acre, corn of 160 and an average soybean of 46 bushels per acre - and those are the provincial average yields from last year – you would remove approximately 150 lbs per acre of phosphate and 150 lbs per acre of potassium over a three crop system. These are base numbers to keep in mind. This accounting is a big concern because I have seen it where landowners wanted big dollars (for the rental price), and he got it from a renter, but the renter only put on a 100 lbs of phosphate, 90 lbs of potash over a 3 crop system and in effect remove the rest of the nutrients from the land. 

In some ways that’s much like stealing. 
It’s a perfect scam in Ontario because it’s accepted and everybody’s doing it - but as a responsible landlord and as a responsible renter you don’t do this. You’re going to pay more to rent the land but the land is looked after better. For instance, for every 35 lbs of phosphate that you remove from the soil and do not replace, the phosphate soil test level will drop by one point. So over a 3 year period, supposing you put on 50 lbs of phosphate and you remove 150 lbs, the soil test levels will drop by 3 points. It’s very very hard to measure a 3 point drop in soil tests. So it’s a perfect scam really, that is going on across the province. Landowners would be wise to be aware of this risk.
The other part of this whole thing is to have a soil test at the end of a 3 year period just to see what is going on. 
So the question is, if a tenant is going to apply manure anyways, why soil test? 
Because if you have a soil that is testing, say 40 for phosphate, that’s kind of high - in fact it’s too high. On farms like this, it’s okay to drop down phosphate levels probably to 25. On those types of terms it’s good for the landlord and the renter to know what soil test levels you’ve got, what it can be dropped to so everyone knows what’s going on, and so the best practices can be followed. Money isn’t unnecessarily spent on needless treatments either. 
RentThisLand.com’s Remarks:
A good lease agreement is one of the best ways a landowner can protect the ongoing value of their land. As Patrick suggests, fertility management is an important consideration when selecting a tenant, and creating a lease. At minimum, recognizing that tenants who practice fertility auditing and management in their own operations may offer enhanced value beyond the straight-up rental price, is a good starting point. Further, landowners may benefit from defining a soil testing and fertility program, similar to what Patrick outlines above, in their lease contracts. Landowners should be sure to stipulate that the results of soil tests and the ‘balance of accounts’ for their land be provided by the farmer for inclusion in the landowner’s records. 
Our process lets landowners clearly define their lease expectations when creating a listing, and has features in place to help distinguish which farmers have the practices in place to make the best tenant partner. 
Similarly, we encourage farmers to highlight in their ‘profile summary’, the specific ways in which they practice stewardship of the land and soil. Farmers now have the option to upload supporting documents when making an offer, so particular information about fertility practices may be wise to include. 
Farmers - do you use a crop advisor, routinely test the soil, and have fertility plans in place? If so, be sure to highlight your strengths in this area when you submit an offer! 

Do you have questions or comments about this article? Be sure to leave your feedback below!