“A man is what he thinks about all day long,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once said. For many farmers, that daily fixation has become fertilizer, namely how to get it as cheaply as possible.
But in recent years, this has become far more problematic now that the days of cheap, readily available nitrogen are long gone, says one expert, who offers four strategies for getting the most out of whatever source you choose.
- Option 1: Soil testing
Charles Mitchell, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System agronomist and Auburn University professor of agronomy and soils, says the first strategy, while an old one, shouldn't be discounted — soil testing.
In terms of soil testing, southern farmers typically share a lot in common with their counterparts in the Midwest: “I'm from Missouri — show me.”
True to this Missouri stereotype, many farmers question the precision of soil testing and are often tempted to apply more nutrients for insurance, Mitchell says.
But cynicism, in this case, is a sentiment farmers can't afford, he says.
Simply put, Mitchell says, “Don't bank on putting your money in the soil.”
If your land-grant university soil testing shows your fields are high in certain nutrients, then no more of these should be added, he says.
Also, if you know you have built up high levels of nutrients in the soil, start taking advantage of them, Mitchell says. This applies especially to phosphorous, the retail prices of which have tripled in the past couple of years.
“We have data showing that if you're harvesting cotton lint or grain, you can raise some crops — corn, wheat and cotton and soybeans — for as long as 10 years without reducing these soil test values very much,” he says.
“It's a great way of taking advantage of what's already in the soil.”
- Option 2: Planting legumes
The Deep South is blessed with many things that benefit farmers — sunshine and typically high moisture rates — though soil organic matter, a key source of nitrogen, isn't one of them.
With few exceptions, southern farmers have depended on cheap nitrogen to make up for this deficit.
Now, with nitrogen at such a premium, farmers face the often daunting task of securing alternatives. In some cases, legumes may be good bet.
Mitchell points to the famed, century-old research on Auburn University's Old Rotation as proof of the advantages that can be derived from rotating with legume crops.
“It continues to show us that you can raise a darn good cotton crop using only winter legume nitrogen in the form of crimson clover or vetch — protecting the soil in the winter and no-tilling it in the spring,” Mitchell says.
Last year, Mitchell and other Auburn University researchers produced more than four bales of cotton using only legume nitrogen, though he stresses that the Old Rotation enjoys one distinct advantage over most southern cropland: It has been rotated with legumes for more than 100 years.
The other option — applying more than 120 pounds of fertilizer nitrogen — would have cost $100 an acre. “That would eat up your profits really quickly,” Mitchell says.
By comparison, planting winter legumes cost between $30 and $50 an acre. “And with these legumes, you can produce the same yields, providing you manage it the right way,” he says.
- Option 3: Use chicken litter
Chicken litter could be considered one of the biggest ironies of farming within the last few years. “Chicken litter has actually been a burden on us for the last 30 years, because we've had excessive amounts of it,” Mitchell says. “Now farmers can hardly find enough of it.”
Two years ago, growers could get all the litter they needed for $20 to $30 a ton, though most thought this was too much to pay, he says. Now some growers are paying as much as $80 a ton to have it delivered and spread.
“Believe it or not, if you added up the value of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium in a typical ton of poultry litter, it was as high as $130 last summer,” Mitchell says.
“The nitrogen alone in litter is worth more than $40 a ton.”
The bottom line: If you can get chicken litter, use it, Mitchell says. “It's hard find, so you better start booking it now if you plan to use it next spring,” he cautions.
- Option 4: Bite the bullet and buy fertilizer
While it's the least desirable, commercial fertilizer may be the only option in some instances. And if there is one consoling thought, it's that fertilizer costs do vary.
“Usually dry, granular urea is the cheapest source of nitrogen,” says Mitchell, who adds that ammonium nitrate is largely unavailable.
Farmers should look at the per-pound cost of nutrient rather of per-ton cost of material. Chances are urea will prove to be the cheapest source of nitrogen.
Urea does carry its disadvantages, Mitchell says. For starters, it tends to become volatile in hot, dry weather.
Even so, research has shown that while these losses do occur, they do not run as high as many farmers typically assume. “You do lose some, but you don't lose that much,” Mitchell says, “Especially if it's applied to bare soil.”