For the last couple of years, Noble Research Institute soil and crops consultants have been telling you that the rise in fertilizer prices was most likely due to the rise in fuel prices. The good news is that world prices for natural gas are lower than they have been in recent years. The bad news is that now the world demand for fertilizer is one of the leading causes for the increase. On top of that, the U.S. dollar doesn't buy as much as it once did on the world market. Some expert observers of the fertilizer market have estimated that there may be another 20 percent increase in price by spring 2008.
What can we do to maximize our fertilizer dollar? The most important thing is to take soil tests and, if you have fruit trees, tissue tests in July. I may sound like a broken record, but a soil test allows us to make recommendations on what nutrients need to be applied to the soil. If you fertilize without a soil test, three things can happen and two of them are bad! (I think a football coach made the original statement concerning the forward pass.)
When you submit soil for testing, give us a realistic yield goal. For example, if you have never produced more than 2 tons per acre of forage from that pasture, don't put 10 tons per acre down for a yield goal. How do you set a realistic yield goal? First, determine how much forage you need for your livestock requirements. If you have not been producing enough forage, then aim for above average yields so that your yields can improve over time. Setting a yield goal should be done each year. Second, keep good production records. I recommend that you keep production records for a pasture or field for five years. You will probably notice that not all fields are the same, and you will have some fields that will utilize fertilizer more efficiently than others. Third, adjust your past average to set a yield goal.
The practical range for a realistic yield goal should be somewhere above the average to near the maximum yield in the last three of the five years. One method is to add 10 to 30 percent to the recent average yield. The other method is to take the average of the three highest yields in the last five consecutive years. Regardless of the method you decide to use, it is important to be consistent from year to year.
Do your homework and know the analysis of a fertilizer. Urea is 46 percent actual nitrogen by weight. Ammonium nitrate is 34 percent actual nitrogen by weight. If both cost the same, which one is the better buy? (Just a hint, it would be urea because you get an extra 12 pounds of actual nitrogen for each 100 pounds purchased.) How about using 13-13-13 versus 10-20-10? Does the crop actually need a "complete" fertilizer? If it does not need the complete fertilizer, purchase a blended product and put exactly what you need on the crop. Why waste money on potash if the crop doesn't need any?
Contact a Noble Research Institute soil and crops consultant if you have any questions on maximizing your fertilizer dollar.