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Tips for Coping With The High Cost Of Fertilizer

Posted Nov. 1, 2005

As everyone has no doubt noticed, fertilizer prices have shot through the roof over the last year. Nitrogen costs have increased between 20 percent and 40 percent over the last 12 months, while phosphorous and potassium also have seen increases. The tragedies in the Gulf, problems with river traffic, ammonium nitrate's hazardous material classification and high natural gas costs point to continued high prices for the foreseeable future.

The question is, "Can you afford these high-priced fertilizers in an ever-tightening economy?" The answer is a resounding "yes", as long as you use them wisely. It has just become more critical than ever to integrate a fertility scheme into a comprehensive management plan.

First, producers must have an idea of base fertility reserves and soil pH. Without this basic information, every other fertility decision is only a guess. Experts always are preaching about the need to soil test, but it is now more important than ever. For example, applying 30 lbs/ac of phosphorous or potassium when levels are adequate can add $6/ac to fertilizer costs without providing any immediate benefits. Conversely, not applying these nutrients when they are deficient will reduce yield potential and waste nitrogen fertilizer dollars, even when everything else is done correctly. The basic soil samples should be taken to a depth of 6 inches. To account for sub-surface nitrogen, also sample the 6- to 12-inch depth. If you have any questions or need sample bags and submission forms, contact a Noble Research Institute soil and crops specialist.

For forages, the next priority is determining the amount of forage needed to meet overall production goals. These goals depend on the type of forage, soil types, stocking rate and tolerance for risk. Nitrogen rates are based upon meeting these yield goals, so it is very costly to target yields that produce more forage than can be marketed through an end product, be that calves, beef, milk or hay.

This brings us to the point of making sure you actually use the forage you produce. Utilize the forage in a timely manner, employing whatever system works best for your operation. Your grazing system may be rotational, strip, limit or continuous, or you may be cutting for hay. Proper forage utilization is similar to a tightrope walk, since you need to use as much of the forage as possible without overuse and damage to the forage resource.

Once you have implemented a plan to efficiently produce and utilize your forage, look at how you supply the required nutrients. The general rule of thumb is to always use the lowest-cost form of fertilizer available to supply your needs. There are exceptions to every rule, and this is no different. An example of this is urea (46-0-0), which usually has a lower cost per pound of nitrogen than ammonium nitrate (34-0-0). During the dry heat of summer, urea is subject to significant volatilization losses when not incorporated by tillage or irrigation. The volatilization losses can nullify the original cost savings, making urea the more expensive choice in the end. Contact a Noble Research Institute soil and crops specialist with any questions about the types of fertilizer to use.

Finally, shop around for the best deal available. Compare prices among dealers and ensure they are quoting prices on the same fertilizers. Some retailers are willing to make special deals on large quantities of fertilizer shipped directly from the port or railhead. This option requires the ability to receive, store and handle the bulk materials safely. Another option is to determine your needs and book fertilizers early to avoid future price increases. There is no guarantee that costs will go up, but booking 34-0-0 last January could have saved about 30 percent off current prices.

With careful planning and attention to all the details, fertilization can still produce the lowest-cost forage available.

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