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Higher fertilizer prices in 2019 dictate increased management

As farmers plan for the upcoming growing season, they are facing higher fertilizer prices verses 2018 and that is dictating increased management.

Retail fertilizer prices continue to move higher, with nitrogen fertilizer leading the way because of the increased cost of natural gas used to make those products. For the last week of January, anhydrous prices averaged $584 per ton verse $490 per ton for the same week in 2018, which is up 19 percent. Urea was at $409 per ton, compared to $353 per ton last year, an increase of 16 percent.

Keith Mockler, DEKALB Asgrow district sales manager in southeast South Dakota, says those higher prices really hit crop budgets hard. "Fertilizer prices are up $20 to $40 an acre for a corn crop this year."

As a result, he is working with farmers on ways to cut costs for the upcoming season. "We're talking to a lot of guys this year about split applying the nitrogen," Mockler says. "You know put some on at planting time and we'll come back and we'll top dress or side dress some. We can get by with a little less nitrogen that way."

Mockler says he is hopeful nitrogen prices will drop somewhat going into spring, but regardless, split applications are a good way to maximize yield. "It's a little more work for them, which is fine," he says. "But they'll still be able to save $10 an acre that way."

Dave Schwans, president of 'N-Rich Plant Food, Inc. in Humboldt, S.D., says farmers that use starter fertilizer don't have to use as much fertilizer later in the season. He says a starter application allows farmers to concentrate the fertilizer in a band near the seed at planting.

"You don't have to spend as much money to get that big bang because you're placing it in-furrow, it's not broadcast over a wide area where the plant has to search for it in the reproductive stages of the growing season," he says.

That precise placement also boosts crop production, Schwans says. "It's right there when the plant germinates and if you can double the plant size in the first two weeks of growth, your ear rows and your yield are set in that very early stage of growth," he says.

For corn, his company's research is showing an 11-bushel per acre bump over no starter on corn, and increases on soybeans, small grains and lentils.

Schwans says starter prices have also stayed relatively steady compared to other fertilizer costs. "All of our raw material that we buy is tech grade or food grade. So, we're not tied to the ag market like urea, potash and other products that fluctuate with the natural gas and oil market."

Farmers are also using precision agriculture tools to save on fertilizer costs. Kevin Rozenboom is a precision ag specialist with Farmers Coop Society in Sioux Center, Iowa. He says they can help farmers lower costs and improve yield by soil testing and using the yield maps they've generated to apply the correct amount of fertilizer where the soil needs it through variable rate application.

"We start with a flat application on the starter and then we'll finish out with a variable rate application," he says.

Depending on the operation, the variable rate not only saves input cost, but can really bump yield. "Really it comes from being more efficient, but those ranges can be anywhere from a few bushels to 10 to 20-plus bushels," he says.

Since Sioux County is abundant in livestock, the use of manure is another way to lower the cost of commercial fertilizer. "Manure in our part of the country is a main component and we need to look at how we can use that manure not only in the fall, but in the spring," Rozenboom says.

He says that gives farmers the opportunity for a split application of fertilizer, where the producer comes in to side dress liquid nitrogen or anhydrous during the key reproductive time of the crop.