Custom-blend fertilizers making mark

The Betts brothers of Harnett County, N.C., grew up raising tobacco and, in 1991, assumed management of their father’s farm.

For years, they relied heavily on standard fertilizers they trusted, like 6-6-18 and “Bulldog soda.” Escalating prices for the first and scarce supplies of the second led them to consider switching to custom blends. Now they can’t imagine using anything else.

“In years past, fertilizer was one of the cheaper inputs in tobacco production,” said regional agronomist Don Nicholson of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “Now it’s one of the more expensive. These fellows, and their father before them, had success with standard brands and weren’t inclined to change without good reason.”

The transition started when Ronnie Betts was preparing for his 2008 crop. Nicholson met with him to go over soil test results and pointed out that phosphorus levels were already sufficient. He suggested that Betts have a custom blend prepared that would more closely match the needs of the crop. The two men discussed the options and settled on a 10-3-22 grade fertilizer that included sulfur.

“It turned out to be about $50 per ton cheaper to purchase the custom blend, but the benefits didn’t stop there,” Betts said. “The blend has a higher analysis, is easier to apply and provides the exact amounts of nutrients needed.”

When Betts used 6-6-18, it took about 1,500 pounds of fertilizer to supply 80 to 85 units of nitrogen. He had to open around 20 bags to fill the spreader. With a custom blend, he uses only 850 pounds, and there are no bags to contend with.

“Our crop looks just as good as it did with the 6-6-18,” Betts said. “Growth is consistent from one end of the field to the other despite any difference in soil type or moisture. We’re happy with the custom blend so I don’t see going back to 6-6-18.”

Betts generally rotates tobacco with soybeans and small grain. He always submits soil samples for tobacco land several months before planting. With this management strategy, he samples about one-third of his fields each year. His soils are sandy so he almost always has to apply sulfur.

“When I get a soil report, I want Don to look at it first, then the two of us will get our heads together. I want his input. If he doesn’t have the information I need, he knows where to get it. I feel comfortable calling him at any time.”

For the past two seasons, Nicholson has helped Betts decide on a custom-blend analysis based on soil test results. In other years, Nicholson has helped Betts work out the fertilization for float bed production of tobacco transplants and diagnose growth problems based on tissue test results.

“One of my next goals is to show them how to optimize the timing of harvest by using tissue samples,” Nicholson said.

“We’re always looking for ways to improve, and it seems to pay off,” Betts said. “Recently, we’ve increased our acreage and added 15 new bulk barns. I’m open to Don’s suggestions.”

North Carolina growers have access to one of the most comprehensive agronomic testing and advisory services in the nation. Soil testing and agronomic consulting through NCDA&CS are provided free of charge for North Carolina residents. Other agronomic tests — nematode assay and plant, waste or solution analyses — are available to residents for minimal fees and to non-residents for slightly higher fees. Information on other tests is available online at

The NCDA&CS Field Services Section has helped North Carolina growers manage fertilization and other nutrient-related issues for nearly 30 years. The division’s 13 regional agronomists make site visits; evaluate suspected nutrient and/or nematode problems; and give advice on sampling, liming and fertilization. For contact information, go to

Agronomist Don Nicholson serves growers in Harnett, Johnston, Wake, Wayne and Wilson counties. He can be reached by phone at (919) 498-0504 or by e-mail at [email protected].

TAGS: Management
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