Feb. 7, 2022 08:00 AM

Mike Rankin
The year was 2008, and the cost of urea nitrogen was tipping the scales at over 60 cents per pound. Only a few years earlier, it was 30 cents per pound. Farmers were ready to rebel, and who could blame them? No meeting or newsletter was complete without addressing the issue and offering words of sympathy and options. It was a long-running nitrogen pity party that winter, even with higher commodity prices. A similar non-festive atmosphere occurred in 2012.

Last year began with urea nitrogen costing less than 40 cents per unit. With each passing month in 2021, nitrogen costs soared. We blew by 70 cents per unit like a Corvette passing a 1963 Rambler station wagon on blocks. The price now sits at somewhere near $1 per pound of nitrogen, and once again we check-in at the fertilizer Heartbreak Hotel.

So, what gives?

Any number of reasons are being offered for the current state of fertilizer prices, but natural gas prices and availability are cited as major culprits. In the early 1900s, German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed a process to convert atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia using a reaction with hydrogen. The chemical reaction demands heat, and natural gas has long been used to provide the source for that heat. Hence, expensive natural gas has always equated to expensive fertilizer.

There are other reasons why fertilizer prices have soared. It’s been my impression over the years that they like to follow grain commodity prices, and we’ll leave it at that. There doesn’t appear to be much nitrogen relief in the immediate future. Of course, phosphorus and potassium fertilizer prices, along with other crop inputs, are also creating carnage in checking accounts.

Many of you reading this are beef, dairy, or sheep producers and sit in a much better position than your row-crop brethren. That’s because most livestock producers have two magic fertilizer bullets — manure and legumes. With intentional effort, these two components of a dairy or livestock production system can whittle a fertilizer invoice down to the size of a business card.

Manure management today is far better than it was 30 years ago. Admittedly, a large chunk of that progress was driven by regulation. However, a long run of tight margins, even with lower fertilizer prices, also contributed. Manure is no longer dumped on terminal alfalfa fields that are easy to drive over. This practice added enough nitrogen for two or three corn crops, but most of it leached to groundwater. Manure is now or should be targeted to monoculture grass crops, including corn, that are not following legumes.

There has also been a trend for grazing livestock producers to intentionally spread manure across pastures through carefully designed summer grazing and winter-feeding systems. Isn’t it interesting that a pasture system designed for optimum grass utilization is also often best for manure distribution?

And that brings us to legumes.

Legume forage crops accomplish what Haber and Bosch took years to perfect, only without the need for natural gas. A legume not only fixes its own nitrogen, but it’s also willing to share with neighbors or subsequent grass crops. In most situations (sandy soils excluded), no nitrogen is needed for a corn crop following alfalfa and significant reductions can be made for second-year corn.

Legumes also make it possible to eliminate the need for applied nitrogen in pastures. Spin seeds on or drill them in — a 30% legume composition or more will boost quality and require you to only see your fertilizer salesperson at youth baseball games.

Capture the power of manure and legumes, but also don’t cut profits by not using commercial fertilizer where it’s needed. The most profitable decision you make this year might still be to apply that first pound (and then some) of nitrogen to a starved grass crop, even at $1 per unit.

For phosphorus and potassium, it’s going to take a soil test to make any reasonably informed decision. If fertility is already at an optimum level or higher, the economic return for additional fertilizer is low, and this might be a year to skip or cut back applications; however, do this with the realization that fertility levels will decline and must eventually be rectified.

The fertilizer price situation is not pretty, but without the power of manure, legumes, and soil test results, it could be much worse.

This article appeared in the February 2022 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 4.

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