Three Things You Should Never Do If You Want to Control Fertilizer Costs
If fertilizer sticker shock for 2022 has you worried, you’re not alone. In some areas, fertilizer prices have skyrocketed more than 300%. Delivery times are anyone’s best guess.
What’s your next move? Plant less corn next spring? Cut back on fertilizer to save money?
“There’s a lot of uncertainty in the fertilizer market right now, but there are key factors you can control,” says Dennis Klockenga, a crops specialist with ProfitProAG.
Critical mistakes are easy to make, as well, Klockenga added. If you want to control your fertilizer costs, never do these three things:
1. Skip soil tests. A soil test is important to optimize crop production. It can also help you spot areas where you may be able to cut back on fertilizer and save money. “It’s important to look at your soil test first and then decide your fertilizer strategy, so you’re not heading for a train wreck,” Klockenga says.
Don’t just go with the basic soil test that measures phosphorus, potassium and pH, though. It’s important to measure trace elements like zinc, sulfur, calcium and magnesium, especially if you’re not getting the yields you want. Klockenga recommends a base saturation (BS) test, which measures calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. “Base saturation correlates with many other values on the soil test report, but it’s a better prediction of nutrient availability,” he said.
The amount of calcium available in the soil is very important for cell division and plant growth. In areas where soil magnesium levels have gotten too high (i.e. 20%+ BS), high-quality calcium products can help exchange magnesium that’s held in the soil with calcium. This is important, because when soil magnesium levels are elevated, this can limit the supply and availability of potassium to the plant.
“Limited potassium supply will have direct effects on plant growth and grain yield due to lower drought tolerance, weaker stalks and stems, and less resistance to plant diseases,” Klockenga said.
Most Midwestern soils have plenty of magnesium, with the exception of highly sandy soils, Klockenga said. If you don’t have enough calcium in your soils, the texture will be like concrete, impeding air, water movement and nitrogen fixation.
“Magnesium is like a golf ball, and calcium is like a beach ball,” Klockenga explained. “If you have a soil filled with ‘golf balls,’ you won’t have as much pore space for air and water movement, compared to a soil filled with ‘beach balls,’ where you have more pore space.”
Having more pore space can help lower your fertilizer bill. “The more the soil ‘breathes’ and allows air and water movement, the more you lower plant stress,” said Klockenga, who also recommends plant tissue testing during the growing season. “Less stress means plants can use nitrogen more efficiently, which means you may be able to apply less nitrogen.”
While there is an extra charge for a BS test, Klockenga recommends testing for BS and trace elements in at least 1 to 2 places per field. Ideally, these tests will show calcium between 65% to 75%, 15% magnesium, 5% potassium, sodium less than 1% and pH around 6.7 to 6.8. If your numbers are off from these levels, ProfitProAG has options that can help.
2. Avoid a residue breakdown. If you’re not mastering residue management each fall, you’re missing opportunities for free fertilizer. Roughly 4 tons of corn residue per acre are left behind by a 180 bu/A corn crop. That material contains 80 pounds of nitrogen, 30 pounds of phosphorus, 190 pounds of potash, 16 pounds of sulfur, 35 pounds of calcium and 25 pounds of magnesium. “These nutrients are free, when you break down crop residue biologically and release these nutrients to feed next year’s crop,” Klockenga said.
Spraying ProfitProAG’s residue management product on crop stover following harvest unleashes the power of beneficial microorganisms. “The fungi and microbes poke holes in the stalks as they consume the material,” Klockenga said. “This helps break down the residue from the inside out.”
Josh Knapke, who farms with his family in west-central Ohio near Rockford, knows how effective this “second harvest” can be. Knapke admits he and his brother were skeptical at first, though, when Klockenga suggested the residue management system. Knapke sprayed ProfitProAG’s residue management product onto his fields following the 2020 harvest. He was shocked when he saw the results in the spring of 2021. “There was no residue left,” says Knapke, who raises corn, soybeans and wheat, with some corn-on-corn acres. “When we did vertical tillage, the stalk residue just disintegrated.”
Residue management is a key part of a new approach the Knapke brothers are taking to build soil health and boost yield potential, from eliminating ripping to adding more cover crops. The Knapke’s holistic system means they don’t use any commercial fertilizer, other than 28% UAN. “To me, it’s not a hassle to spray the corn stubble before we put the sprayer away for the winter, especially when you consider all the benefits you’re getting,” Knapke says.
3. Overlook the “Recipe for Success.” There is no one-size-fits-all system when it comes to fertilizer management and successful crop production. ProfitProAG offers a three-phase “Recipe for Success” to help you control the controllables. The “Recipe for Success” is tailored to your farm’s specific needs through:
While soaring fertilizer prices are painful, ProfitProAG can help you take control, Klockenga said. “Contact us for more details about how your own “Recipe for Success” can make farming more profitable and fun again.”