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Even With High Nitrogen Prices, Proper Fertilization Pays

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My phone has been ringing almost constantly the last couple of months. Most of the conversations involve the high cost of nitrogen. They usually begin with, "Have you seen what fertilizer costs are? Can I afford to use nitrogen at these prices?"

Back in the fall, I was discussing the various ways cooperators were coping with the drought with a wise rancher who has a place near Ardmore. After listening to several of the options, the rancher told me, "If you've got cattle, there aren't but three things you can do. You can feed 'em, you can sell 'em, or you can watch 'em starve." The more I thought about this, the more I came to agree with it.

If we eliminate the "watch 'em starve" option, we're left with two possibilities, feed or sell. I'll leave it to the economists to tell you if you should keep them or sell them. I will discuss whether using nitrogen fertilizer to "feed 'em" is a good alternative.

As I'm writing this, urea is selling for about $400/ton. This is pretty unappetizing since it was less than half that about five years ago. Since urea is 46 percent nitrogen, there are 920 pounds of nitrogen in a ton of urea. Dividing $400/920 lbs. N per ton comes out to a nitrogen cost of 43 cents per pound.

Averaged across many research tests, we assume that a pound of nitrogen fertilizer will produce about 30 pounds of dry matter bermudagrass (this figure assumes adequate rainfall). If this figure is correct, and on average it is, the cost of nitrogen fertilizer to produce one ton of dry matter bermudagrass is about $28.66. Can you afford to fertilize? A better question is, "Can I get another form of feed for $28.66 per ton?" I doubt it. If you can, let me know, so I can get in on the action.

People also ask if they really need all the fertilizer we recommended when we developed their stocking rate. My answer is yes, if you still have the same number of cattle. If you have the same number of cattle, your options are still "feed 'em or sell 'em." (We don't recommend "watch 'em starve.") Feeding them can occur either from growing grass to feed them or bringing feed to them. The previous paragraph explained how you can still fertilize to feed them less expensively than you can buy feed.

Is there anything you can do to increase efficiency of fertilization? You can collect soil samples to see if you have any residual nitrogen in the soil. If so, collect a 0- to 6-inch and a 6- to 12-inch sample. Many of the people we work with have more residual nitrogen in the soil this year than usual. The reason is that the poor grass growth of 2006 did not use much of the fertilizer that was applied that year.

Another thing you can do to increase nitrogen efficiency is to target inputs on your best soils. Your best soils have the best possibility to use the applied nitrogen because they are inherently more productive. You will make more pounds of grass on a productive soil than on a poor soil.

While fertilizer prices are high enough to turn your stomach, using fertilizer is still the cheapest way to provide feed for cattle. The above illustrations only deal with nitrogen. You may need lime, phosphorus or potassium as well. To determine this, you need a good soil test.

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