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High cost of nitrogen calls for new farming strategies

Farmers can expect nitrogen fertilizer costs to average more than 50 cents per pound of nitrogen this year, say Texas Agricultural Experiment Station and Texas Cooperative Extension experts.

What's driving the fertilizer costs higher?

Several things, says David D. Baltensperger, head of the Texas A&M University department of soil and crop sciences. “A lot of factors always go into fertilizer prices. Since the majority of our nitrogen fertilizer comes from petroleum products, the price of petroleum drives nitrogen fertilizer prices rather directly.”

He says with fossil fuel prices remaining high relative to two or three years ago, it's reasonable to expect higher nitrogen prices this year. Another factor is the price of corn, and the record number of acres being planted to supply grain for new ethanol plants.

“Corn acreage is one of our big nitrogen users,” he says. “Consequently, we'd expect to be paying the highest prices we've ever paid for nitrogen on a national basis this coming spring.”

Not all types of nitrogen fertilizer will be in the 50-cent-plus range, Baltensperger says, but the ones most commonly used by East Texas livestock operations will.

“Anhydrous (ammonia) will probably still be the cheapest source, where it is practical to use, but in many cases we have to use ammonium sulfate or ammonia nitrate. Probably all of the last three are going to be around 50-cent-plus per pound of nitrogen.”

With nitrogen costing this much, how can producers maintain production without going in the red?

In East Texas, the most critical economic crops are improved summer forages, which require high rates of nitrogen for good production.

Experts from Extension and the Experiment Station — one beef specialist, four forage researchers, and a soils scientist — offer suggestions on how to lower input costs and maintain profitable production levels.

“We talk about how we are experiencing high fertilizer prices now and what challenges it's going to have for the cow/calf producer,” says Jason Cleere, Extension beef specialist.

“I think one thing we have to evaluate is stocking rate on pastures. We may not be where we have been in the past. We may have to adjust t stocking rates and think more on per unit of land rather than producing as many calves as we can.”

Ray Smith, Experiment Station legume breeder and developer of Apache arrowleaf clover, says winter legumes, because they fix nitrogen from the air, could be part of the answer. Legumes require careful management, however.

“We can deal with the high cost of nitrogen in the future by adding clover and other forage legumes into our pasture systems,” he says. “We do this, generally, by planting in the fall and summer, but we need to make plans now, in the spring and summer, to soil test and to add lime into these systems so we're ready for fall planting.”

Properly managed, clovers can add from 80 to 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre to the soils, he says.

Lloyd Nelson, Experiment Station small grains breeder, has been bullish about over-seeding annual ryegrass and other small grains to offset the cost of buying hay and supplemental feeds in the past. But with current nitrogen prices, he's more reserved.

“Whenever we overseed, we apply quite a bit of nitrogen to make the plants productive. I think cattlemen are going to have to look at this practice very closely and manage their small grains and ryegrass so they get the most forage without applying too much nitrogen. It's going to be too expensive.”

Vincent Haby, soil scientist with the Experiment Station, says the easiest, cheapest cost- saving management strategy is often overlooked.

“In fertilizing any forage grass, regardless of the price of fertilizer, a soil test is always advisable. Fertilize based on that soil test. Also some crops don't require nitrogen.”

One of those is alfalfa. It was once thought that alfalfa couldn't be grown on most East Texas soils because of high acidity. But Haby's research has shown otherwise; with careful attention to soil amendments, a large proportion of East Texas soils are suitable for alfalfa production, he says.

(See for more information on growing alfalfa on East Texas soils.)

“Alfalfa is one of the options available,” Haby says. “If you have to apply phosphorus, do not split-apply if the soil test is low. Get all the phosphorus out there in the spring so it will be available throughout the growing season.”

Gerald Evers, forage management expert with the Experiment Station, says poultry litter is another option to cut costs.

“Particularly in East Texas, we can look at poultry litter as a source of plant nutrients for pastures,” Evers said. “It has many advantages:

  • It's a complete fertilizer.

  • It has all nutrients in it.

  • It has organic matter and also helps improve soil quality.

  • Disadvantages include not being able to get it when you need it all the time and not always knowing what nutrients it contains. But it can be an option.”

Monte Rouquette, Experiment station forage scientist, says offering specific management recommendations is next to impossible, because each ranching and farming operation is different.

Also, individual producers have different expectations when it comes to their operation's bottom line, says Rouquette, who studies how specific livestock and forage species interact to affect production.

“I think the issue we face with increased fertilizer prices it is not just a single issue. It's caused us to be more aware and more efficient in our planning of fertilizer, planting pastures, and planning with animals.

Stocking rate becomes a problem, or it becomes an opportunity for us to utilize efficientlyall the forage we grow with the proper class of animal.”

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