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Timing, Testing Key to Getting the Most Bang for Your Fertilizer Buck

Last week, the developing crop weather story in the Midwest was one of dry soils and their potential for impeding early spring fieldwork and planting. As this week begins, it looks like Mother Nature will bring some much-needed rainfall to the Corn Belt. Despite the need for rain, it's likely to keep fieldwork at a snail's pace as corn planting remains slow in the mid-South this week.

There are wheels turning in parts of the Midwest; along a line just south of Interstate 80 through parts of Illinois, farmers have been "doing a little tillage," according to Daniel Hueber, grain analyst with The Center for Agriculture in Sycamore, Illinois. That area's expected to get as much as 1.5 inches of rain this week, though, bringing that kind of progress to a standstill. That's definitely a good thing there, where the soils need moisture right now to "wake up" and prepare for the crop year.

"I see a few reports of fieldwork taking place in the Midwest over the weekend, but the weather outlook for the balance of the week would not appear conducive to a tremendous amount of progress," Hueber says.

"This ground has to have a rain on it to settle it down and loosen up the soil surface. Otherwise, it stays gummy," says Cropsey, Illinois-based crop adviser and agronomist Dave Mowers. "A half or quarter inch of rain will start the water channels for water infiltration, and that will warm up the soil and get the drainage patterns started so we can start working it. If you work too much before that, you run into problems like compaction.

"We caution our growers to be really selective on the fields they get started on," he adds.

The fertilizer market -- just one of several crop input costs that hasn't exactly tracked the downturn in grain prices in the last couple of years -- likely won't cause planting intentions to change much in his area, Mowers says. Instead, it's more of an issue of quantity; the same crops may be planted, but wholesale cuts in the amounts applied will instead be the case.

"Most of the fertilizer commitments have been made on phosphorous and potassium. With nitrogen, we're going to see guys being cautious on how much they're using. We don't anticipate any change in cost. It's going to come from usage. Nitrogen, they're looking hard at. N prices are not changing much. It's pretty stationary. It will take another 12 months to see another major change."

However, don't trim back your fertilizer application amounts without checking to see whether you're doing yourself more harm than good, Mowers advises. That's where soil testing comes in; though it can be tough from cost and time standpoints to justify stopping to test now, it will pay off if you're looking to cut back.

"A soil test is the best way to manage fertility costs. Hey, we aren’t always perfect with testing, but it is a lot better than guessing what fertility needs are. One more thing: Use the soil test as a guideline. If soil tests are really high, your likelihood of getting a response to fertilizer is low.  If the soil tests are really low, it is very likely that you will receive response to fertilizer.  Whatever the case, it is really important to know," Mowers says. "Get your soil testing done without a conflict of interest by the person from whom you buy your fertilizer. If there is a product sale pending on the soil test, go somewhere else to get an independent, third-party source. That way you can be more confident that you will get unbiased views. It might cost a little more up front, but in the long run it can save you major dollars.  What does a soil test cost? We charge $8.25 per acre for the full job -- soil sampling done by trained and experienced field technicians, lab testing done by the most up-to-date technological equipment, fertilizer recommendations by one of the most highly experienced team of independent agronomists you can find, and a set of color-coded self-explanatory maps to give you a guide to maximizing your fertility investment. The fees cover a four-year period of time, so you only have to soil test once every four years.

"What does $8.25 buy when fertilizer costs, say, $500 per ton?  It will buy you 33 pounds of fertilizer, which is less than a 5-gallon bucket full of fertilizer. If you look at that price, it is a very small amount of extra fertilizer applied or saved fertilizer application.  And remember, that amount is just one time over the four-year period," he adds. "I think that is a very reasonable amount for the value of what it can do for you in your farming operation."

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