Efficient Fertilizer Strategies Exist
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Efficient Fertilizer Strategies Exist

 
October 30, 2008   |   ShareThis

With fertilizer prices at all time highs and crop prices moving lower, growers are asking many questions about how to reduce input costs. Cutting back on their crop fertility programs or changing their cropping plan are often considered. However, improving efficiency of those fertility programs may be a better approach to help optimize crop production and return per acre.

Such opportunities to do so exist, according to Stan Knuth, agronomy manager for Cargill in Oxford, Neb., and he advises growers to gather the facts and run the numbers rather than going with a gut feeling when developing 2009 crop plans.

"Certainly growers want to raise a crop as efficiently as possible, so they want to spend money on the right things," Knuth says. "Many of our customers are asking us to help them decide on a field-by-field basis which crops are going to be the most profitable." While some believe lowering their upfront investment by planting soybeans is their safest haven, recent break-even analysis shows corn is still a winner.

Invest in a plan

One area in which to gain efficiency is by having an appropriate field-by-field plan in place, rather than blanketing the entire farm with one fertilizer recommendation. That means investing in soil sampling to get a clear understanding of the nutrients that need to be applied.

"Soil sampling is an investment--a cost-saving measure to ensure you are putting down no more nutrient than necessary to raise the next crop," explains Knuth.

Ed Braun of Norton, Kan., did just that when planting his 2009 wheat crop this fall. After applying a blanket rate of phosphorus to his wheat for years, he switched to a grid-soil sampling program and variable rate application of a new phosphorus-based fertilizer technology using his air seeder. Application rates based on the site-specific prescription varied from 194 pounds of product per acre to zero.

By abandoning his blanket rate of application, putting more nutrients in areas that need them most, and reducing the rate where soil levels were adequate, he was able to reduce his fertilizer bill from $94 to $47 per acre. While results won't be definite until June's wheat harvest, he believes the approach makes sense, and he's confident in MicroEssentialsTM SZ, the fertilizer product he applied. It combines the correct ratios of critical nutrients--nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and zinc--into uniform granules. The typical analysis for the product is 12 N - 40 P- 0 K -10 S- 1 Zn.

"We started using MicroEssentials on our wheat and soybeans four years ago," Braun says. "While the price discouraged us at first because it was higher than blending our own, the single granule containing all the nutrients intrigued us.

"We started out using it here and there, and today it is about all we use on wheat and soybeans," Braun says. Both yield results and the appearance of the crops throughout the growing season were the convincing factors. Soybeans, even in light hillside soils, appear healthy season-long and yielded with those in the better soils. Wheat is darker and stands better through harvest.

Braun has realized a number of benefits from the single-granule formulation compared to formulating his own blend of nutrient sources on the farm. First and foremost, because all nutrients are in one granule, there is consistent distribution of all nutrients across the field, giving every plant a better shot at getting the essential nutrients it needs to produce the best results. And because phosphorus and sulfur are provided in the appropriate ratios, crop uptake of phosphorus is improved by 10 to 30 percent which means greater benefit from the investment. The product also includes zinc which is a critical micronutrient for proper growth and productivity of wheat and corn, particularly important in the zinc-deficient High Plains.

"The product is very uniform, and it goes through our air seeder very well. I've tried different fertilizers and have had a lot of trouble with them feeding through the air seeder," Braun says. "MicroEssentials doesn't bridge or cake up; there are never big chunks, and it is never fine like flour."

Distribution of the nutrients to each plant across the field is also much more uniform with this granular product than using a blend which often separates.

"In a truck, seeder or cart, blends of different nutrients tend to bounce around and separate, just like chaff from grain," says Knuth. "In addition, in the case of zinc, if I need one pound of zinc per acre, it is much easier to evenly distribute 100 pounds of MicroEssentials per acre (with 1 pound Zn per 100 pounds) than it is to distribute three pounds of a 36 percent zinc fertilizer.

"With the sparse distribution of zinc in a blend, the likelihood of each plant getting some is pretty slim," Knuth says.

Return on investment

At first glance, a product such as this may seem pricy, but with more uniform distribution of nutrients, appropriate nutrient ratios and improved plant nutrient uptake, plants respond positively and yields are increased. According to Knuth, who has offered the product for five years, a four to five bushels per acre yield benefit is typical in wheat with a nine bushels per acre advantage seen in corn.

Assuming the product costs $10 more per acre than a comparable blend, a four-bushel yield advantage in wheat returns $24 per acre and nine bushels more per acre from irrigated corn returns $36 per acre.

Soil tests, past yield reports, cost of production per acre, along with knowledge of the genetic potential of the chosen seed and the individual grower's yield goal are all pieces of the crop production puzzle. With that information in hand, successful decisions can be made on the appropriate investment in plant nutrition.