by Lee Hart
It may be an old dog, but it’s up to new tricks. Fertilizer efficiency and its impact on greenhouse gas emissions, managing surplus nutrients, and improving on-farm energy efficiency are among the key research areas studied by specialists at a Lethbridge centre that has been a rose under several different names.
The exterior of the building, tucked in behind the campus of southern Alberta’s Lethbridge College, hasn’t changed a great deal over the years, but the focus of projects carried out changed. Now called the Alberta Farm Stewardship Centre, it continues to answer questions regarding the ever-changing needs of Alberta’s agriculture industry, says the centre director.
In the very beginning, going back to the mid-1970s, today’s Farm Stewardship Centre was one of three centres established under the Prairie Agriculture Machinery Institute (PAMI). In 1988 it transitioned to the provincially-run Alberta Agriculture Farm Machinery Research Centre. And there was a further change in 2001 as it shifted gears again to become the Agricultural Technology or Ag Tech Centre, says Virginia Nelson, Engineering and Climate Change Director.
“The Farm Stewardship Centre reflects the changing needs of the agriculture industry,” says Nelson. “And I believe that is a role the centre has played since it was established — the centre changed as the needs of the agriculture industry changed.” The centre is part of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s Environmental Stewardship Branch.
Going back to the PAMI days, as new style equipment was introduced to prairie farmers, the focus was on evaluating equipment and answering questions about how these tools worked for producers.
Alberta Farm Machinery Research Centre continued to evaluate equipment performance but also expanded into machinery research not only looking at the mechanical side but also research as it related to agronomic performance.
The Ag Tech Centre had another realignment as farmers developed conservation tillage and soil conservation practices, had interest in improved livestock watering systems, and looked for more efficient and effective use of crop protection products as well as cultural and biological control techniques.
“In each era the centre used applied-research to answer questions,” says Nelson. “The industry has grown, farmers have learned to use the technology, and now the focus has changed again.
“Our lens has shifted to the environment file with an emphasis on a climate leadership direction. The questions today are about what impact agriculture has on the environment, how producers can become more energy efficient, whether new products are effective or how new technology can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Stewardship centre engineers, agronomists and technologists work on several environment related projects.
For example, how effective are new-concept fertilizers — nitrogen stabilizer products — in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as overall crop input efficiency, and ultimately their affect on yields? “These are important questions producers ask,” says Nelson. “And it is a detailed and labour-intensive process to monitor gas emissions.”
In another area, the centre looks at Alberta-made options for reducing phosphorus levels in surface water. This stems from research in the Eastern U.S. using fly ash from coal operations; which in that research was an effective “phosphorus filter.” “We learned there is a difference in the types of fly ash,” says Nelson. “What they were using in the U.S. didn’t work here, but it got us wondering if there is another type of by-product that we do produce here that may be effective in reducing phosphorus levels.”
Another key area of the Farm Stewardship Centre is research into increasing energy efficiency on the farm. An important first step involves developing techniques to monitor and measure electric and natural gas use, for example, and, once it is measured, how can it be managed more efficiently. This research can have broad application to a wide range of farming and intensive livestock operations.
“The past and present success of this centre stems from our ability to evaluate systems under applied-research and develop practices that are relevant to the challenges farmers face today,” says Nelson.