11 ways to make money with 2023 fertilizer
The double whammy of global fertilizer supply uncertainty combined with high cash corn prices provides an incentive for farmers to fine-tune their 2023 crop nutrition practices.
That’s because fertilizer prices will continue to stay above the long-term average, says Gary Schnitkey, a University of Illinois agricultural economist.
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In November 2021, farmers could buy anhydrous ammonia, potash, and diammonium phosphate (DAP) for roughly $800, $600, and $717 per ton, respectively. Farmers who locked in those prices also locked in certainty.
Currently, those prices hover around $1,400, $983, and $862 per ton, respectively. Because of global uncertainty and healthy demand spurred by high cash corn prices, fertilizer prices are expected to stay at these levels, adds Schnitkey.
“Break-even prices will likely be much higher in 2023, near $5 [per bushel] for corn and $11 [per bushel] for soybeans. Continuing high fertilizer prices and increases in all production costs point to the need for high corn and soybean prices to remain profitable,” Schnitkey says.
Here are 11 tips for maximizing fertilizer dollars.
1. Hedge Fertilizer Buys With Grain Sales
It’s a sickening feeling to lock in next year’s fertilizer prices, only to see them fall. That fear keeps many farmers from deciding to buy until they are forced to — and that could mean paying a premium for plant nutrition products.
What to do?
Farmers should offset fertilizer purchases by forward contracting grain sales, says Josh Linville, fertilizer marketing analyst at StoneX.
“If you feel justified to buy fertilizer, you are making the assumption you can make money at next year’s corn price,” he says. “So, turn around and sell corn against [the fertilizer buy].”
Many farmers, he adds, hesitate to lock in small profits for fear they could leave money on the table if crop prices increase or fertilizer prices decrease. Overcome that emotion and be content with small wins in 2023, he urges.
“I’m more than willing to bunt for singles than swing for a home run,” Linville says.
He stresses that farmers must visit with fertilizer suppliers about fertilizer price, supply, and logistics.
“You need to have conversations with your fertilizer supplier,” he says. “I get the apprehension. You don’t want to lock in a high price and watch it fall. But neither does the retailer, or the trader who sells to them. Without these conversations, the entire supply chain is more conservative, and destined to deal with just-in-time demand and logistics.”
2. Test Your Soil
Sampling soil to learn how much fertility remains in the soil after harvest is more important now than ever, says Oscar Ruiz, agronomist at Waypoint Analytical Services.
If you’ve soil tested after harvest previously, continue that regime. If this is your first year to soil test, do it after harvest. If you are new to soil testing, plan to sample every year for two or three years to establish a baseline data set. Then, you can spread out those soil tests every three or four years per field.
“If growers have carryover nitrogen [N] based on a soil fertility test, they are able to back off their overall nitrogen rates,” adds Jason Perdue, territory manager at Wilbur-Ellis.
Whether you’re soil testing for the first time this fall or continuing a long-term soil planning program, sample at the same time each year, Ruiz explains.
“Soil test results will fluctuate, depending on the time of year you take them,” he says. “You may see nutrient values dip a few points in the middle of the season vs. before planting. You can see a difference in soil pH from fall to spring.”
3. Handle Soil Samples Properly
While taking accurate soil samples is important, so is handling the samples after they are pulled.
“Improper handling and storage of soil samples can dramatically reduce soil test accuracy and may lead to under- or overfertilizing crops,” says Dorivar Ruiz Diaz, a Kansas State University (KSU) soil fertility specialist.
Heat and moisture spur microbial activity after soil samples are pulled and placed into a bag. Because this microbial activity influences conversion of organic nitrogen [N] to inorganic N, waiting to send soil samples to a lab can wreak havoc for N.
KSU studies showed that eight days after sampling, unrefrigerated soil samples from a 24-inch profile soil sample depth had nearly 60 pounds more N per acre than samples stored in a refrigerator set at 38° F. After 12 days, the unrefrigerated samples held an edge of nearly 90 pounds more N per acre over refrigerated samples.
Ideally, send soil samples to a laboratory the day they are collected, says Ruiz Diaz. If not, air-dry them or place in a refrigerator set at 40° F. or less, he recommends.
4. Consider Alternatives to Grid Sampling
After generating a healthy set of data from grids, farmers may modify their soil testing strategy to “zone sampling,” or areas that may have a similar feature that responds to a similar treatment, says Nathan Slaton, assistant director of the Arkansas Agriculture Experiment Station at the University of Arkansas.
“Zone sampling has evolved slowly from grid sampling and is hopefully correlated with how the area of a field will respond to the same treatment, like zones that have similar phosphorous [P] and potassium [K] values, for example,” Slaton says.
Farmers can establish these zones by pinpointing areas within a field that have similar P or K levels, or other similar characteristics, such as field elevation and soil texture.
“Also look at yield maps in relation to potential zones,” he adds. “Perhaps areas with high yields need more fertilizer, and low-yielding areas need less fertilizer and may have other physical limitations not related to fertility.”
5. Know What the Soil Lab is Telling You
A common mistake made by farmers is assuming they know whether the soil test laboratory is recommending a “sufficiency” or “build and maintain” philosophy.
“When crop prices are high or fertilizer prices are low, it’s more affordable to apply excess P and K those years, and bank those nutrients in a ‘build and maintain’ system,” says Slaton. This can give farmers a bank of these nonmobile nutrients into which they may tap when fertilizer prices are high. However, farmers won’t know this for sure unless they ask the laboratory agronomist.
“Sometimes that information is not readily trans- parent to the end user,” he says. “You need to talk to the agronomist to understand their philosophy.”
6. Realize Soil P and K Test Numbers Aren't Perfect
One common misconception is that the soil test results are 100% on the money. That’s not always the case, Slaton says.
“Soil P and soil K numbers are merely an avail- ability index, and not the absolute truth,” he says. “They are an indicator of availability to the depth sampled, but there are nutrients available below that depth. I think in many instances, we short- change the amount of nutrients a soil can supply the crop.”
Remember, too, that consistency when obtaining a sample is important. Soil test results — and the subsequent recommendations — will be different in season vs. out of season.
“You can see a dip by a couple of points in the middle of the growing season, and there will be a soil pH difference between fall and spring,” says Waypoint’s Ruiz, who adds that hitting the same field locations that you’ve drawn soil samples from is just as important. “Be consistent in time and space.”
7. Protect N With Stabilizers
Fertilizer is too expensive to leave unprotected, says Perdue with Wilbur-Ellis.
“If we have too much moisture, or if you’re just spreading it on the ground, we have to make sure we’re not letting it volatize into the air or leaching,” Perdue says. “That’s where nitrogen stabilizers come in.”
Ron Heiniger, corn extension specialist at North Carolina State University, agrees.
“Yield is king,” he says. “Whatever we do to our crop has to continue to perform, and cutting N, P, and K isn’t going to do it. That’s cutting your throat to save your pocket.”
Nitrogen stabilizers prevent losses by stopping specific parts of the N cycle that lead to losses. Two types exist:
- Urease inhibitors. They prevent the urease enzyme from converting urea into ammonium.
- Nitrification inhibitors. They kill a specific group of nitrifying bacteria that converts ammonium to nitrate. These products delay the rate of con- version, while urease inhibitors delay conversion for 10 days or so (longer in cooler conditions, shorter in warmer conditions), says Dave Franzen, Extension fertility specialist at North Dakota State University.
There are an assortment of next-generation N stabilizers that work to inhibit losses from both volatilization and nitrification. These aim to provide longer-lasting protection from N loss.
8. Invest in Starter Fertilizer
If you’ve not been in the habit of applying starter fertilizer when planting corn, 2023 could be the year it pays big. Dan Quinn, a Purdue University Extension agronomist, cites research that shows corn yield increased an average of 5.2% when using starter fertilizer blends including N, P, and K.
When applied in-furrow, the rates were 7, 8, and 4 pounds (per acre) respectively. In a 2×2 scenario (2 inches deep, 2 inches to the side of the row), rates were 21, 21, and 15 pounds per acre of each.
The research, published in 2020, shows a 5.2% increase in yield and 74% “win rate” across 474 sites in the upper and lower Corn Belt. A caveat: Both methods had similar results when the majority of N was applied before or at planting. If most N is applied at sidedress, only the 2×2 protocol increased yield.
9. Consider 2x2x2 Fertilizer Application
The practice called 2×2×2 is gaining traction. Farmers who equip planters accordingly are adding two bands of fertilizer to their corn crop at planting, each band 2 inches deep and 2 inches from either side of the row.
The seed company Beck’s says that practice — 2×2×2 — bumps yield nearly 5 bushels per acre compared with applying fertilizer on one side only (220.3 bushels per acre vs. 215.6 bushels per acre).
Through its Practical Farm Research Program, Beck’s tested two fertilizer products:
- 50/50 blend of 28% and 10-34-0
- Straight N
Through several years of research, the yield bump appears to come from the N instead of the P. Beck’s believes in the system so much it has earned the “PFR Proven” label, meaning it has shown a return above investment for three consecutive years.
10. Understanding Tissue Testing Timeliness
Growers who use tissue testing have a short amount of time to take corrective action, says Isaac Anderson, a WinField United agronomist.
“Growers need to talk to retailers about the turnaround time on tissue sampling,” he says. Some retailers can turn around tissue samples in a day, others a week. Anderson says the average life of a corn plant from emergence to physiological maturity is relative to a 75-year-old human.
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“That ratio is that one day for a corn plant equals six months for a person,” he says. “If we let our plant be deficient or out of balance for a week, you’ve set that plant back several years of its life. That’s why it’s important to know the turnaround time and what you can do for in-season [nutrient] management.”
11. Establish a Tissue Testing Baseline
Landon Smith, Parker City, Indiana, finds results of tissue tests help establish a baseline set of data to make decisions for future years.
“You have to establish a baseline because the size of the plant is relative to the concentration of nutrients,” he explains. “If you have a big leafy plant, it may show you’re deficient in something when in fact, you’re not. So, you have to build up a baseline of data to figure out where you are.”
Smith dabbled in leaf tissue testing in corn in 2021 on his farm and decided to obtain tissue samples on each field every week during the 2022 growing season.
“It’s a bit of data overload, but that should allow us to stay ahead of anything we need, and if the weather allows, we can address any issue that comes up,” Smith says.
The objective, he continues, is not just maximum yield.
“We can all catch a big yield,” he says, “but you have to be able to make money. Tissue sampling is a low-cost way to manage every acre.”