Fertilizer purchases don’t hurt as much today as they did a year ago, but they’re still high enough to warrant wise econo-misering.
The place to start is with good soil samples in each pasture, says Dennis Hancock, University of Georgia forage specialist. Hancock has been talking to pasture managers about how to pinch those fertilizer pennies without emptying the forage bank. He offers valuable advice to all managers of introduced and therefore fertilized pastures, no matter where they live.
1 Test first.
Hancock’s point about pasture is you can’t know what to apply or cut without knowing what shortages you have or how well those additions may work. That’s age-old, and pretty obvious, advice.
One of the most important things you can do is figure your yield goals and your fertility response on any given piece of land, adds Jerry Volesky, range and forage specialist at North Platte, Neb.
2 Match soil needs.
Don’t use standard blends such as 13-13-13, Hancock says. In most cases you’re paying for and adding some nutrients you don’t need. He offers this example:
If a beef producer applied 1,471 pounds of 17-17-17 to meet a fertilization level of 250-65-225, it would cost, at current prices, about $405 per acre.
Yet that same amount of fertility could be created with 488 pounds of urea (46-0-0), 141 pounds of diammonium phosphate (18-47-0), and 375 pounds of potash (0-0-60) for just under $300 per acre.
Hancock adds that depending on the price of litter, 4 tons of chicken litter and 110 pounds of potash could produce the same level of fertility for about $160 per acre. The caveat to this last example is not everyone has manure products available, and they vary to some degree in price and shipping cost.
3 Split applications.
Splitting application of fertility can increase effectiveness because it decreases volatilization, runoff and leaching. It can also reduce risk from drought and early or late freezes. Really dry conditions or dry soil at normal fertilization time might be cause to cut back or not fertilize, depending on expectations.
Hancock quotes data indicating forage yield increases of 5% to 10% and nitrogen use efficiency increases of 25% to 30%.
In the Northern Plains that might mean up to three nitrogen applications for irrigated cool-season forages, Volesky says. Typically that would be as spring growth begins in earnest, again in early fall to boost production, and then early in summer to get a little more growth before summer dormancy.
Timing is a real issue, however, Volesky warns. Plants are very good at taking up nitrogen, and if weeds or non-target grasses are more prevalent at application time, they will get the benefit.
“Uptake is really quick after nitrogen is applied — as little as five to seven days,” Volesky adds.
4 Target the best land.
If you want to cut your fertility bill — just flat out cut back — consider fertilizing your best land and ignoring or reducing inputs on your worst, Hancock says. Or, consider grazing meadows where you’ve traditionally cut hay and cutting hay on grassland you’ve typically grazed.
In either case the idea is to get the most response from your fertility dollars. To do this well, however, you need soil tests and decent records on production to know where you’ll get the most bang for dollars spent and pounds applied, Volesky says.
In addition, grazing returns 70% to 85% of the forage nutrients to the ground in urine and feces. Well-distributed grazing makes this even more effective.
5 Redistribute nutrients.
Time-controlled, managed grazing not only does a better job redistributing nutrients, but also allows the forage to build stronger roots and produce more yield.
Hancock offers these comparisons of harvest efficiencies under different grazing scenarios:
• continuous stocked pastures in the Southeast: 30% to 40% grazing harvest efficiency
• slow rotations of three to four pastures: 50% to 60% efficiency
• faster rotations of six to eight paddocks: 60% to 70% efficiency
• strip grazing with high stock density: 70% to 80% efficiency
He also notes final, overall hay efficiencies can vary from 30% to 70%, mainly depending on how much is lost in storage and feeding.
In practice, most graziers who do a good job managing their grazing with higher stock densities, shorter graze periods and longer recovery periods eventually double or triple their overall stocking rate.
6 Cut your losses.
Dry fertilizer losses can be much greater with urea than ammonium nitrate if the weather is hot and/or dry. If you have a choice between the two, consider cost and potential effectiveness, Volesky says.
Volatilization, which is the release of ammonia into the atmosphere, can cause up to 40% losses with urea if rain doesn’t fall within 48 hours of application, according to University of Missouri agronomists.
Auburn University scientists say the greatest losses most likely will occur when urea or urea-containing fertilizer is surface-applied to a soil where high amounts of plant residue are present. Losses likely will be accelerated if the soil is moist at the time of application, followed by five to seven hot, windy and dry days.