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Five Ways to Stretch Your Fertilizer Dollar

By James Locke
Soils and Crops Consultant

Posted Mar. 1, 2011

With many analysts predicting that fertilizer use will return to normal levels during 2011 and expected tight supplies, higher prices are on the way. We hope that they will not reach the astronomical levels seen a few years ago, but we need to be prepared. Since we are expecting higher prices, it makes sense to have a plan to get the most out of our fertilizer dollars. Following are five ways to help get you started.

Test soils

If you have ever been to our educational events, or our consultants have been to your place or have talked to you at the grocery store, or you ever mentioned fertilizing, we told you to soil-test first. Why do we feel so strongly about soil testing? Soil tests are necessary because they are the only way to determine limiting nutrients, pH or the amount of residual nitrogen in the soil. If we apply phosphorus or potassium and they are not limiting, we are wasting money. Likewise, if we only apply nitrogen when phosphorus or potassium are limiting, we will not get the anticipated yield response. Finally, if soil pH is either too high or low, fertilizers may be unavailable to plants.

Apply nitrogen according to yield goal

We usually recommend nitrogen according to crop-specific yield goals. By setting a realistic yield goal and accounting for the amount of residual nitrogen, we know how much additional nitrogen is needed. Otherwise, we risk not applying enough nitrogen to meet our yield goal or over-fertilizing. Extra production is not a problem for commodity crops, but over-fertilizing to grow more forage than needed is wasteful.

Select the right fertilizer blend

Use a fertilizer blend that meets your specific needs as identified by soil testing. Although convenient, the so called "complete" fertilizers, like 17-17-17, rarely supply nutrients in the quantities needed. Plants do not use nutrients in equal proportions nor are soil deficiencies usually equal. By purchasing only the nutrients needed in the correct proportions, fertilizer dollars are used more efficiently.

Consider nitrogen source

There are several nitrogen sources, including ammonium nitrate, urea, liquid UAN and anhydrous ammonia. We usually recommend the one with the lowest cost per pound of actual nitrogen; however, other factors such as weather, product availability, application timing and the crop being fertilized may affect your nitrogen source choice. The cost per pound is calculated by dividing the price per ton by the pounds of nitrogen per ton. The table shows how a lower cost per ton does not necessarily mean a lower cost per pound of nitrogen.

Table 1.

Get the best price

Always compare fertilizer costs from several sources. Variation among sources can be significant - we have seen up to 40 percent for the same product - but be sure to compare the costs as delivered and applied. Another option is obtaining bulk fertilizers directly from a wholesaler. This requires either obtaining a dealer's license or purchasing through a licensed dealer. If purchased through a dealer, many will reduce their price if bulk fertilizer is delivered directly to the user and they never have to handle it. There are drawbacks, though, including not being able to use a blend, arranging for freight, providing storage space and application. Finally, consider applying with your own equipment rather than the dealer's. Most dealers will reduce their fertilizer price if they do not have the wear and tear on their spreaders.

These are just a few ways to stretch your fertilizer dollars. With high fertilizer prices here to stay, every producer will have to determine what methods will work for their operation.