Recent volatility and continued unpredictability in fertilizer markets have made the industry more conscious of ways to get the most efficiency out of their costly — but necessary — fertilizer inputs. Retailers play a vital role in educating growers and offering new solutions to help optimize current nutrient management practices.

Precise and Efficient Application

Growers spend a substantial amount of money, time and other resources applying fertilizer to crops. Precision agriculture components such as GPS and variable rate application are playing a key role on today’s farm to help improve uniformity and accuracy of fertilizer applications.
In addition to precision agriculture tools, advancements in technology have improved our ability to conduct and evaluate soil tests and provide new products that work with fertilizer to improve its efficiency.

Management practices such as the adoption of no-till and conservation tillage systems have evolved, as well.
A greater understanding and strategic use of the various application techniques also plays a significant role in maximizing fertilizer efficiencies. According to Verona, Wis.-based AgSource Cooperative Services, “banding can be twice as effective as broadcasting on low-testing soils. On average, crops use 15 percent of broadcast phosphorus and 30 percent of banded. In reduced-tillage and broadcast, fertilizer is required, knifing it in will help the crops utilize the phosphorus.”

Overcoming Natural Inefficiencies

Much of the nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer applied can be lost to the environment, rather than being available to the plant, due to naturally occurring soil processes. Researchers estimate growers can lose as much as 50 percent of their valuable nitrogen fertilizer each year to volatilization, denitrification and leaching. Similarly, as much as 75 percent to 95 percent of applied phosphorus fertilizer becomes fixed in the soil, making it unavailable for plant use.

These inefficiencies have led to increased popularity of fertilizer additives. In January, growers at the 17th Annual National No-Tillage Conference were surveyed on the topic of fertilizer additives. Of the 227 surveyed, 49 percent have used fertilizer additives to improve nitrogen and/or phosphorous efficiencies. When increasing fertilizer prices were addressed with participants, 58 percent had considered or are planning to use a fertilizer additive to increase efficiency.

Soil Testing Comeback
Now more than ever agronomists are reinforcing the value of soil testing as one of the most valuable tools available for efficient nutrient application. Soil testing can be used very effectively, particularly if we consider the following:

  • Grid sampling improves accuracy. Typically, there can be large variability within a field. To obtain a more accurate soil test more intensive soil sampling schemes are being used, such as grid sampling, in which many samples are taken within a field and analyzed separately.
  • Variability in the timing of sampling can impact the reliability of soil test results. Samples should be taken at the same time of the year.
  • Counterintuitive as it may seem, a high-testing P soil, for example, does not mean the phosphorus is available for plant use. SFP research repeatedly has shown a marked response in high P soils to the use of Avail, a phosphorus fertilizer enhancer, when applied with liquid or dry fertilizer applications. An example of this came from a three-year Kansas State University soybean study with soil having a P level of 38 parts per million. When compared to different MAP application rates, the Avail-treated plots averaged a 9.65 bushel-per-acre increase, despite the soil’s high P level.

Progressive management practices, such as those described here, are just a few ways profitability and sustainability can still live in harmony, even in times of economic uncertainty.

As head of SFP, Larry Sanders, Ph.D., developed and patented technologies in the use of biopolymers for increasing agricultural potential and continues new product development. Sanders has extensive U.S. and international experience in research and education related to agronomy, soil chemistry and soil fertility-plant nutrition.