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How precise should you go with fertilizer?

Agriculture.com Staff 08/29/2008 @ 3:16pm

Fertilizer prices have a lot of farmers thinking about the choices they have to defray some of the skyrocketing costs. Cutting back on applications in general is the obvious tactic. But, knowing how much to apply by keeping a closer eye on the soil conditions is becoming a feasible option for many farmers.

2008 has proven to many the value of a precision view of the field, and that's already finding its way into 2009 budget planning to a larger degree, says Marysville, Ohio, certified crop adviser Travis Rowe.

"In our location, I see another year where a huge number of acres see the benefits of soil sampling in a site-specific manner to help get a better handle on soil fertility," says Rowe, an Agriculture Online 2008 Crop Tech Tour CCA correspondent.

Just how site-specific farmers get is one are that's up for debate among many. Technology allows soil sampling on a square-foot basis as well as variable-rate applications that adhere precisely to what each inch of ground needs, nutrient-wise.

But, along with more precision comes more cost, and when it's implemented to offset other rising costs, some farmers may find it tough to justify a full-fledged variable-rate precision system. That makes finding the right balance between cost and precision key to making the whole thing work. But, it's also crucial to know exactly your nutrient needs.

"We're doing more [soil] sampling and more careful application of fertilizer based on that. No variable-rate," writes Agriculture Online Crop Talk member cz4586. "But, our fields are small and for the most part, they're divided up to be consistent on nutrient needs and potential."

Sampling in a grid system is also a way to keep a close eye on the soil's needs, says Crop Talk member RichILL. It's worked for him, but he adds his farm's soils are relatively consistent. Without that trait, grid sampling may not be as effective.

"The downside with grids is you may end up over- or under-applying a portion of the grid due to differing soil types and slopes," he says. "The farm needs to be pretty uniform to make a grid system work well, as far as I am concerned."

Still, other farmers say a simple "mental calculation" based on close attention to the landscape is a good way to efficiently apply fertilizer. Crop Talk member wicksfield does this, and even though his fields aren't nearly as consistent in nutrient needs, breaking fields up into "zones" helps.

"In one field, half of the field requires different rates than the other half. In another field, I will divide it into quarters for different application rates," he writes.

In general, Rowe says he's observed that those farmers who are most successful in boosting fertilizer efficiency will be the ones most risk-tolerant and open to new tools. And, with input costs moving up the way they are, such qualities haven't been more important.

"Without a doubt this coming year we are going to have to take an even closer look at every angle of our management for areas of improvement," he says. "With input costs across the board being higher, we are going to have to keep an eye on marketing opportunities and try to stay open-minded to new management tactics. I'm optimistic at this point that there will be some great prospects for success, but there is going to be a large amount of risk that we will have to learn how to manage."

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