There’s Nitrogen in Them Thar Hills!

If you haven’t noticed, the price of fertilizer over the past several months has more than doubled. And if there ever were a time for doing an extensive job of soil sampling, it is now.

What’s more is that if your soil test results are anything like ours, you might just have a very pleasant surprise waiting for you.

Over the past several years we had become quite used to anhydrous ammonia prices running between $350 and $400/ton””literally the lowest prices in probably 20 years. But the honeymoon is over. Those prices have now doubled. Liquid N and phosphorus prices are even worse. Liquid N  is 75 cents a pound while dry is 70 cents.

All of this has been caused by two major factors both hitting in mid-winter. One was the Artic cold that pummeled the entire country leading to massive shortages and horrific price increases for natural gas and other fuels.

The other was skyrocketing grain prices. Because of an apparent increase in farm profitability, the fertilizer manufacturers decided to share that profitability with us. One local fertilizer dealer said when grain prices were going up so sharply, the fertilizer prices could hardly keep up with it. “In just one day, we were given four price lists””one right after the other.”

One of the main ways of combatting these heavy duty prices is to cut back on use. And the best way you can do that without hurting crop yield is with extensive soil testing and use of reasonable yield goals.

Back in early winter, we did just that””we sampled every field on the farm. And talk about an early Christmas present! We were shocked to find that on probably half of our fields, we needed no fertilizer whatsoever! Initially I was thinking because of my good fortune in finding all this carryover fertilizer, I’d be able to cut fertilizer costs in half. But now with sharply higher fertilizer costs, it’s looking more like I’ll be able to keep my costs from doubling. Still, that is definite progress.

A lot of this carryover nitrogen, for instance, likely is due to having taken advantage of the abnormally low prices by using somewhat higher than normal rates. In essence, we deposited money in the soil bank which we’re darned sure going to be using this go-round.

But as you know, nitrogen is water soluble so to find carryover, you need to pull deep samples. Instead of going just 0 to 8 or 10 inches deep, pull samples from 0 down to 20 inches.  That will tell you if you have any deep nitrogen””and at a 20-inch depth, crop roots can still easily get it.

But phosphorus, for instance, is not water soluble, so if you pull just a single deep soil test, you’ll probably get an erroneous phosphorus reading and recommendation. Consequently, you need to pull a second 0 to 8 or 10-inch sample for the phosphorus.

We also use reasonable yield goals of 50 bushels per acre on wheat, for example. Fertilizer recommendations are based on that yield goal. Then to test the adequacy of our fertility program, we test all of our grain for protein. If wheat protein content is 12% or higher, nitrogen was not a yield limiting factor. Several years ago when we had an 80 to 85-bushel per acre farm average on wheat, our protein content still averaged 12.5%–so fertilizer was not a problem.

Fertilizer recommendations for 7 fields using a wheat yield goal of 50 bushels/acre. Only 2 fields need nitrogen while just one needs phosphorus. No fields need potassium.

Too, in regards to phosphorous, some years ago in talking with K-State fertility specialists, they told me that 20 ppm was kind of a breakeven level for added P.  In other words, if your soil test says you’re below 20 ppm on P, there’s a good chance it’ll pay to apply it. But the higher you go above 20 ppm, odds of it paying decline.

The local fertilizer dealer said right now things are an absolute mess in the fertilizer world.  “These higher prices have certainly taken a lot of fun out of farming. But looking ahead, if we can get back to normal market behavior, there is a good chance that prices will moderate at least somewhat. For instance, nitrogen prices normally go down after the really big demand for putting in the corn crop.  Once the corn is planted, nitrogen starts declining. So late spring or summer is normally a good time to be buying fertilizer for the upcoming wheat crop.”