Alabama growers looking for cheaper nitrogen

Farmers have yet another item to add to their long and exceedingly grim list of worries for 2008 — spiking fertilizer costs.

As Alabama Regional Extension Agent Henry Dorough describes it, “insult has been added to injury,” considering that farmers already are dealing with two years of record drought resulting in poor pasture and hayfield growth.

So, what are farmers to do? What they’ve always done in times of adversity — pull up their socks and search for solutions.

Aside from praying for rain to restore damaged pastures, farmers are shopping around for nitrogen — any cheap nitrogen, Dorough says.

But while it’s possible they may find some, Dorough cautions buyers to beware — nitrogen sources are not equal and settling on a cheaper source may end up costing you more in the long run.

To underscore this fact, Dorough checked with sources in his region of east central Alabama and found that prices indeed varied by source. Ammonium nitrate, which contains about 34 percent nitrogen, sold at around $450 a ton, while ammonium sulfate, with about 21 percent nitrogen, cost about $350 a ton. Other sources included liquid N-Sol, with about 32 percent nitrogen and running $450 a ton, and broiler litter, with 2.85 percent nitrogen costing about $45 a ton.

But there’s one other thing to consider aside from prices, Dorough cautions. Beyond the cost of fertilizer are the additional costs of reversing the fertilizer’s acidifying effects on the soil.

“Commercial fertilizers have an acidifying effect on the soil, meaning they tend to lower soil pH and increase the need for lime applications,” he says.

For example, it takes about 61 pounds of ground limestone to neutralize the acidity in 100 pounds of ammonium nitrate and 110 pounds of lime to neutralize the acidity in ammonium sulfate.

So, to get an accurate gauge of nitrogen costs, you also need to factor in the cost of lime to maintain the soil pH.

With this in mind, one-hundred units of nitrogen from ammonium nitrate — even though it’s somewhat more expensive than other sources — may be the cheaper bet in the long run, Dorough says. But there’s yet another factor to consider.

“Because of the world we live in today, ammonium nitrate is tightly regulated by the federal government,” Dorough says, adding that for this reason, some vendors no longer even carry it.

For this reason, buying ammonium nitrate, while cheaper in the long run, will impose some extra hurdles, such as dealing with added regulations and paperwork.

So where does that leave broiler litter? Dorough says there is a place for it.

“Broiler litter does not acidify the soil as do some commercial fertilizers and, with the added organic matter, may even improve soil fertility,” he says.

Moreover, broiler little also contains phosphate and potash, added advantages if soil testing reveals a need for these nutrients, which could run as high as $60 or more an acre to apply, depending on soil test recommendations.

But there’s another rub. In the wake of high nitrogen prices, farmers are buying more broiler litter. Consequently, the product is scarce in some parts of the state, though readily available if you’re willing to pay the extra trucking costs.

Dorough adds one word of caution.

“Nitrogen content of broiler litter is highly variable depending on its source and management, so it should be tested to ensure nitrogen applications meet forage needs,” he says.

And like ammonium nitrate, there are a few regulatory hurdles that must be overcome stemming from state regulations on the use of animal manures as fertilizer.

The bottom line is that broiler litter — providing it can be had — may be a better source for cattle producers as a way to improve forage production without exhausting capital resources, Dorough says. This is especially true considering the potential added benefits of phosphate and potash, as well as the liming effect associated with broiler litter application, he says.

Whatever producers choose to do, Dorough stresses that soil testing is critical.

“It’s important that you soil test to determine exactly what the soil requires,” he says. “Don’t put out nutrients that aren’t needed.”

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