Strong hay prices and stabilizing fertilizer costs should give hay growers the incentive to reevaluate their nutrient management programs, according to Robert Mikkelsen, western North America director for the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI).

Many hay growers cut back on fertilizer in recent years because of surging input prices, noted Mikkelsen while speaking at the Idaho Hay and Forage Association’s annual conference in Burley earlier this month. Foregoing those applications for a year or two probably didn’t hurt yields for top-producing operations with good nutrient management plans, he said. “But if you were already skimping on fertilizer, you most likely left some yield on the table. And you may have lost more in yield than you saved on fertilizer costs.”

To get back on track, Mikkelsen recommended soil testing and/or tissue sampling as a first step.

“If you could bump up yields a bit, applying more fertilizer would be a good investment, especially given today’s hay prices. If you’re already meeting crop needs, you don’t want to over-apply. To know which way to go, you have to test.”

Fertilizer prices should stay stable in the near future because of the following factors:

• A surge in U.S. natural gas production, which means more ammonia will be available for making nitrogen fertilizers. “We used to be one of the most expensive places in the world to make ammonia,” said Mikkelsen. “But now, we’re becoming one of the least expensive. We think there is a good supply of domestic nitrogen fertilizer coming online. That should ease some of the upward pressure on prices.”

• Marketplace changes making it more feasible to expand mining throughout the world, including mining potash in Canada. “Global supplies of phosphorous fertilizers should be improving as well.”

• A more stable U.S. corn crop this year. Demand and the price of corn, the biggest driver of fertilizer use in North America, could taper off. The amount of corn devoted to biofuel production is stabilizing this year after several years of rapid growth, he said. “But if grain prices remain high, the demand for fertilizer is harder to predict.”

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