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Wise fertilizer management makes high cost inputs countWise fertilizer management makes high cost inputs count

• Utilizing all the crop inputs to their full potential, and wasting as little as possible in many cases, will be tantamount to making or losing money — despite the high prices farmers receive for their crops.

Roy Roberson 2

June 21, 2012

7 Min Read
<p> PROPER PLANT nutrition can lessen the affects of storm damage as seen here in wheat.</p>

The 2012 crop will likely be the most valuable crop in history and it will also likely be the most expensive crop ever to produce.

Utilizing all the crop inputs to their full potential, and wasting as little as possible in many cases, will be tantamount to making or losing money — despite the high prices farmers receive for their crops.

Long-time Virginia Tech Soil Scientist, now retired, Mark Alley says any yield that can be made efficiently, but for whatever reason is not made, can be a huge loss to the grower. The top end yields are what usually make money for growers.

The grower has to pay fixed costs for land rent, machinery and everything else. It doesn’t matter whether he harvests 100 bushels of corn or 200 bushels of corn — the fixed costs are the same. 

It doesn’t really matter whether it’s the extra 1,000 pounds of peanuts or the extra bale of cotton, the top end of the yield is what makes money. “With input costs so high and crops so valuable, this year it will be more important than ever to get all the yield a grower can get and to spend money wisely to get that yield,” Alley says.

‘Wisely’ is the key word, because the costs of crop inputs are higher than ever. The grower can get nailed economically by using inputs that don’t produce extra yield that is beyond the cost of the material and of getting it to the crop.

More than any time in history it is critical that growers be knowledgeable about every input he puts on his soil or on his crop and to be flexible in how and when he uses this inputs.

Being flexible means a grower should have a game plan for  the best varieties, how many seeds per acre he will plant, when to plant and such, but if conditions change, a grower needs to be ready to change.

Nitrogen is now a ‘year around sport’ that starts with an understanding of where we are at the beginning of the season. Then we take weather and different soil types and we manage throughout the season. In the Southeast that means multiple nitrogen applications.

The good news is growers have the best equipment we’ve ever had to do multiple nitrogen applications. The equipment is not expensive, relative to many other input costs, particularly the value of fertilizer.

“I remember early in my career it was a major expense and a time-consuming effort for a farmer to spread nitrogen on a large acreage farm. Fertilizer was cheap, but the cost of applying it was relatively expensive — it was something most growers tried to minimize,” Alley says.

Times have changed

“Then, the equipment was much slower, so the risk of not getting nitrogen applied properly was high. Now, labor is really hard to find, but application equipment is fast and highly efficient, if calibrated and used properly. Even in absolute dollars the cost of nitrogen application per acre has not gone up.

“Some people have referred to our current status with nitrogen application as an ‘incremental’ approach to target nitrogen. You have a target crop out there and you start with what you need at various stages of the crop development—much like growers have done with split nitrogen applications in wheat,” he adds

In Virginia, several years ago most growers just applied nitrogen to wheat in the fall. Some growers used two applications — spring and fall. Now, some of the better growers make four nitrogen applications to wheat. A good breeding program headed by Carl Griffey and improved production techniques, like multiple nitrogen applications have pushed wheat yields up in Virginia.

Having nitrogen available during peak crop demand will increase efficiency of the plant for utilizing nitrogen. The later a grower can wait to apply nitrogen, the more likely the rate will be correct and the plant root system is larger and makes more efficient use of applied  nitrogen.

“When the grower knows for sure what kind of stand he has, is there adequate soil moisture and other things, nitrogen use is going to be more efficient, Alley says.

Loss of nitrogen to flooding, in particular, has always been a problem and likely always will be a problem, but there are some things growers can do to combat these type losses, Alley says.

“I have a former graduate student, Peter Scharf, who now works at the University of Missouri, who tracks rainfall in the Corn Belt and he has come up with some tremendous data for rescue nitrogen treatments following different weather-related disasters on corn.

“In some cases, nitrogen is put on much later than usual, and in some cases, even flown on when growers cannot get into a field. The pay back has been tremendous in some of these fields in the Midwest.

“The more we know about the weather and how it affects crops and all the inputs that go into crops, the better we will be able to manage nitrogen in some of these unusual, or infrequent weather scenarios,” Alley says.

With the current cost of phosphate, potash and nitrogen, applying these fertilizers to acid soils is just a killer, Alley adds. For starters, a good liming program, based on sound soil data is a simple thing, but  too many growers don’t follow it strictly enough.

“Soil testing is relatively inexpensive and it doesn’t take a lot of time to do it, but the returns can be huge in terms of how efficiently fertilizers work.

Tissue tests valuable

“Early season tissue tests can further refine and fine tune fertilizer programs. With modern technology, tissue samples can be sent over-night delivery and have the data back in three days,” Alley notes.

“I like to use tissue tests late in the season after the fertility program is done and the plant is growing, for example, the corn ear leaf at silking. Look at a few samples to determine whether or not all the nutrients needed by the plant were delivered to the plant.

“That way the grower knows any loss in yield can be attributed to something other than plant nutrition,” he adds.

Right now phosphate fertilizer is extremely high. Knowing how much phosphorus is needed and putting it in a 2X2 band at a half or third rate can be effective.

The other side of that coin is that you won’t build fertility over time, but if the grower wants to be as efficient as possible for this year’s crop, then banding is an option.

Potash prices have risen steadily over the past few years, and subsequently growers have cut back on its use. In some soils in the Southeast potash deficiency is becoming a major concern.

Getting soil tests, particularly for sandier soils, is critical to know potash levels. If potassium is really needed, a grower has to get it out there, because plants won’t use nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers as efficiently as they will when potash levels are good, Alley says.

Much the same is true for sulfur deficiencies. Both go back to having a good liming program and having timely soil test information and most of all, applying the information in the optimum way, he adds.

“We’ve got good molecules, like urea, UAN (urea ammonium nitrate) and anhydrous ammonia for delivering nitrogen to the soil. But, the potential for loss to leaching and other causes is too high. These molecules have been around a long time, but we’ve got to figure out a way to make them work better,” Alley says.

Through his work with Koch Agronomic Services, the long-time Virginia Tech scientist continues to help growers find new ways to make fertilizer use, particularly nitrogen, more efficient.

“Long-term, efficiency is where the grower is going to be able to add that extra 25 to 40 bushels of corn per acre or an extra bale of cotton and ultimately where his is going to make money in this era of high prices and high input costs,” Alley says.

In addition to economics, he points out that making fertilizer more efficient will take care of most of the environmental concerns and help ease some of the restrictive regulations that growers are dealing with today.

”We essentially have two choices. We can fight these battles like we are doing with the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, or we can figure out a way to apply exactly what nutrients  a plant needs and when it needs the nutrients, and then figure out how deliver the optimum amount, leaving little if any to get into our waters,” Alley says.

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