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A reduced fertilizer future? AAFC’s latest Plowdown Challenge explores manure’s potential in potato farming

When Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) science coordinator, Scott Anderson, and AAFC technician, Roger Henry, began the AAFC Plowdown Challenge last year, they weren’t quite sure what to expect and how producers would react. But after receiving lots of positive responses they decided to launch version 2.0.

The concept this year is similar to last year. Scott and Roger are planting the Mountain Gem potato variety on a field at the AAFC Harrington Research Farm, and farmers are encouraged to guess what the yield will be after harvest and grading this fall. The field was planted with red clover last summer  and plowed last fall. Again, the potatoes will be grown without the use of fertilizer. But there’s yet another twist – they will spread manure in the field this year.

“The manure adds a little wrinkle to the challenge this year,” says Scott. “Manure contains a range of nutrients, and if properly applied, it can improve soil structure and water holding capacity to help plants to grow.”

Scott Anderson grading potatoes
Scott Anderson grading potatoes

While Scott and Roger don’t expect farmers to stop using fertilizer altogether, they are trying to demonstrate how much yield they can actually achieve by just using nutrients in the soil from a properly managed previous rotational crop.

Last year, the actual potato yield after harvesting the #AAFCPlowdownChallenge fields at the AAFC Harrington Research Farm on Prince Edward Island was 169 hundredweight per acre. That is compared to the provincial average of 311 hundredweight per acre of potatoes in 2023.

Prince Edward Island cattle farmer, Paul Smallman, was the winner of the inaugural challenge with the closest guess of 177 hundredweight per acre. Might we see a back-to-back winner or will a new farmer take the title in 2024?

Farmers can send their guesses to Scott by email at scott.anderson@agr.gc.ca or through X (Twitter) at @peiscooter before June 1, 2024.

This initiative is one of the many ways AAFC and farmers are continuing to act as stewards of the land, working towards an even more sustainable agricultural sector. Considering leftover nutrients in the soil when making decisions on fertilizer-use can be added to the toolbox for farmers along with other AAFC-researched beneficial management practices such cover crops and enhanced efficiency fertilizers.

Source: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC)