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With rising fertilizer costs for the 2022 cropping season, farmers are evaluating fertilizer cost reduction strategies to mitigate loss.

Fertilizer is one of the most expensive inputs for crop production, and some nutrients have more than doubled in price from last year. The price spikes are largely due to supply chain shortages and disruptions, as well as higher commodity prices.

The first step in managing your nutrients is to obtain a soil test for all fields. Soil tests obtained within the last three years are considered current if fertilizer recommendations were followed.

Soil sample early in the fall to get results before the soil freezes. Fertilization recommendations should be determined based on if the soil sample is above, under or within optimum range.

It is recommended in fields that have soil test levels within the optimum range to be fertilized at crop removal rates to maintain the soil nutrient levels in the future. If your soil is already in the optimum range, it may not be necessary to apply additional nutrients as the soil nutrients can stay in the optimum level for a least one year, if not several.

Phosphorus can remain in the soil for several years, while potassium gets depleted faster, especially in harvested forage crops. If your soil tests for pH, P, or K are below the ideal levels, then fertilizing or liming may be necessary to avoid yield declines caused by nutrient deficiencies.

If you are limited on your input budget, then consider amending your pH as crops show positive economic responses to enhanced nutrient availability.

When soil test levels are below optimum, it is typically recommended to use a ‘build and maintain’ strategy. The build component is used to add additional nutrients to raise the nutrient level to optimum, while the maintain component is used to feed the crop what it will remove in nutrients each year.

Fertilizer costs may prohibit farmers from building their nutrients, but farmers may resume building their nutrients when fertilizer prices are lower.

Local farmers utilizing long-term soil health practices have found that they are able to maintain yields, even in soils with below optimum nutrient levels, by only applying at removal rates.

The district, through the Hillsdale WRAPS program, is offering technical assistance and incentives for farmers to do grid or zone soil testing, including biological testing, to determine localized P-requirements for optimum yield/profit efficiency. Farmers willing to experiment with lower application rates may qualify for special financial incentives.

Once you have built your recommendation, you must consider how you apply it to maximize nutrient efficiency. All nutrient efficiency can be improved by using the right rate, right source, and applying at the right time in the right place.

Phosphorus fertilizers should be banded or applied subsurface, not broadcasted, to reduce fixation by soil minerals and potential runoff, and so that crop roots can access the nutrients.

Potassium can be broadcast on the soil surface because it is easily diffused through the soil.

Nitrogen management is a very important decision for the upcoming cropping year. Be cautious of fertilizing at rates above the economical threshold. This will cause farmers to lose money because the additional nitrogen they applied costs more than what is gained from the crop’s yield.

Urea is prone to volatilization loss when left on the soil surface without a timely rain or urease inhibitor. Split applications of nitrogen reduce nitrogen losses early in the season by improving the conjunction between the crop’s nitrogen demand and the nitrogen fertilizer supply. Urease inhibitors are recommended with UAN solutions to increase infiltration into the soil and reduce volatilization.

Farmers in the Hillsdale watershed interested in utilizing high-percentage legume cover crops to reduce synthetic nitrogen requirements may qualify for special technical and financial assistance.

The strategies discussed should help you to make informed nutrient management decisions while reducing fertilizer costs. Most of the strategies to enhance nutrient use efficiency are best management practices that you should already be doing, but the current high fertilizer prices have brought their importance into focus.

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