ISSUE 15   September 18, 2008

COPING WITH HIGH FERTILIZER COSTS AND "IFFY" CROP PRICE PROSPECTS

The continuing high fertilizer price quotes at the local and national scale, as well as interviews I watched on the TV show "Fast Money" of the CEOís of Agrium and PotashCorp that the moderators described as "almost giddy" convince me that fertilizer costs will remain high at least through the first of the year. However, most people, including those that were giddy, cautioned that these fertilizer levels will only remain at these levels if crop prices remain high. Wheat prices have fallen to below $7/bu at some country elevators and corn to about $5/bu from their summer highs. At these crop prices, many growers are looking for ways to reduce fertilizer costs.

It is important to note that in the many site-years of data that studied nitrogen rate on wheat, the check plot, regardless of beginning soil nitrate levels never was zero yield. This means that our current recommendation of 2.5 X yield potential is not correct. In fact, the check plots are often much higher than zero. This year at Hazelton, Washburn and Valley City, my N rate check plots were within 20% of the highest yields in the plots. Even in low residual N experiments after barley, the rate of N required for good protein and highest yield (near 70 bu/a) was between 90 and 120 lb N/acre. So my suggestion is that being conservative on rates is not a bad thing. In a really poor growing year, rate wonít mean much at all (i.e. this year in the southwest of ND), while in a good year (Jamestown east where the crop didnít experience flooding) moderate N rates still produced exceptional yield and protein. In areas that had low protein, look for N timing problems and improvements in application technique.

The continuing reluctance and belligerence of many growers towards hiring soil sampling continues to baffle me. With fertilizer prices this high, any grower who doesnít hire a reputable soil sampler should hire a therapist.

Banding P and K is a viable option to reduce P and K rates. There are many ways to accomplish this. Remember that any band farther than 2 inches away from the seed is not a starter application, although the efficiency of the application will still be higher than broadcast. Also remember that yield increases from added P is rarely more than 25% in this region, and that most of that 25% will be achieved through modest P rates. Ask for University recommendations. Buildup/maintenance programs will not pay with the current P cost/crop price situation.

Even a maintenance program is a buildup program, because it does not acknowledge release of P from the soil. At most, a maintenance program less 20% would be advised until either crop prices increased or P prices decreased.

Watch sulfur on coarse-textured soils. We have had a lot of rain in the east over the last month. Going into winter we will be wet. Any spring rains will leach out any sulfur remaining. Application of S is therefore encouraged for any crop on low organic matter sandy soils, especially on hilltops and slopes.

 

SEVEN STEPS TO BETTER CROP NUTRIENT MANAGEMENT

1. Soil test-

Even with high fertilizer costs, probably only 20% of farmers soil test. It is time to step out into the 21st century and try a more scientific approach. What worked OK for $3 wheat and 10 cent N will not work well with $8 wheat and $1 N. Find a reputable soil sampler that understands the critical value of a well-taken soil sample. Soil sampler providers- make sure your employees understand the value of taking a sample well and the stakes resting on a poorly-taken soil sample/field. There are numerous people in ND and the region who are professional about taking a soil sample. Find them. Hire them.

2. Use University recommendations from your soil test-

University recommendations are based on real data from your area. Other recommendations often originate in marketing board rooms.

3. Band P and K-

$1/lb P2O5 should have your attention. There is plenty of time to plan on banding. Look around for equipment that will work with you. Plan ahead for the logistics of supplying the planter, or even banding in the fall. Banding farther away than 2 Ĺ inches from the seed will not act as a starter. Starter is important for canola, sugarbeets, potatoes, small grains and corn. It is not important for sunflower, legumes and remember not to apply any P to flax. If banding in a separate trip than planting, and you have a crop that responds to a starter, a few gallons of 10-34-0 will be helpful in most years. Line up your 10-34-0 soon from someone that will follow-through with your order to avoid problems like the shortage we had last spring. Banding P and K will enable you to reduce P and K rates between Ĺ and 1/3 depending on the crop you plan to raise.

4. Apply N below the surface-

There is plenty of time to line up equipment to enable you to apply N below the soil surface in no-till/one-pass seeding systems. This is not the year to again risk the whims of mother nature to incorporate urea. Get it below the surface! And donít have it spread on frozen ground! Look around and see what kind of equipment will work for you and SET IT UP!

5. Consider the timing of N applications based on calendar and soil texture-

Fall application in the state/region works well on medium to heavier-textured soil when the chances of soil saturation in the spring are small. Fall application does not work well on sandy loam and coarser soils, or on fine-textured soils that seem to saturate most years (i.e. Hillsboro, Fargo, fields next to the Red River). Be prepared in variable textured fields to treat different soils differently. Consider side-dressing or splitting N applications on heavy problem soils or sands. Consider slow-release N products on irrigated sands. Do not begin fall application in ND before October 1, and then only if the soil temperature at 4 inches taken between 8AM-10AM falls to 50 degrees or less. From that date, wait another week to begin banding urea. Wait still another week to begin broadcasting urea and incorporating it.

6. Consider sulfur on sandy soils if fall or early spring rainfall is normal or higher-

Sulfur deficiency in all crops on lighter soils has become commonplace. Site-specific application with a fertilizer buggy on sandy soils within a field will reduce total fertilizer costs and prevent yield losses on sandier soils in most of our glacially-derived soils and even in the west.

7. Use micronutrients only when needed and not as "insurance"-

Zinc deficiencies are found in corn, dry beans (not soybeans), potatoes and flax. All other crops grow fine on any soil zinc level we can find. Use zinc when the soil test calls for it on sensitive crops. Avoid buying things you donít need.

Dr. Dave Franzen
NDSU Extension Soil Specialist
david.franzen@ndsu.edu


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