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What are farmers doing to overcome high fertilizer prices?

Five farmers from across the country break down their approach to fertility in the upcoming season.

Skyrocketing fertilizer costs for the 2022 growing season have been making headlines for months. XtremeAg farmers report that prices have doubled or more since the 2021 growing season. As market analysts and grower groups assess the situation, farmers make plans. Five farmers from across the country break down their approach to fertility in the upcoming season.

Kevin Matthews, East Bend, North Carolina

What is happening in North Carolina?

Kevin Matthews and his family farm corn, soybeans, winter wheat, and barley across more than 5,000 acres in East Bend, North Carolina. He feels “very blessed” that the price of orthophosphate liquid fertilizer has only increased 12% to 15% over the last year. That’s his farm’s primary source of phosphorus, potassium, and micronutrients. 

However, Matthews’ main nitrogen source is a 24% nitrogen, 3% sulfur liquid product he normally picks up directly at the Wilmington, North Carolina, port. Last summer he thought $170 to $238 per ton was high. As of December 2021, the prices have soared to $550 to $600 per ton – and that’s if the supplier even has the product available.

What is Kevin Matthews’ plan for 2022?

Poultry and eggs are North Carolina’s top agriculture commodity, so litter is a great local option for increasing fertility and organic matter in the soil. The Matthews farm already uses as much poultry litter as they can get. “You get a lot more benefit from it vs. commercial fertilizers, although we are dependent on the commercial products to produce a sustainable food source for consumers,” Matthews says.

Matthews adopted variable-rate application of fertilizer long before the prices jumped, and will continue the practice into 2022 as well.

Crop rotation on Matthews’ farm is determined by geography of the land, so switching corn acres to soybeans is not an option for managing 2022 input prices. The farm’s bottom ground is corn on corn because “the ear height has a larger chance of staying above the water in a flood event. Soybeans would be a total crop loss!” explains Matthews.

Chad Henderson, Madison, Alabama

What is happening in Alabama?

Chad Henderson raises corn, soybeans, and wheat on more than 10,000 acres near Madison, Alabama. Like many of his peers, Henderson has seen fertilizer prices “nearly double” in the last few months, across the board.

What is Chad Henderson’s plan for 2022?

Technology and trial results will be Henderson’s biggest tools for overcoming challenges brought on by the higher fertilizer prices in the coming year. “We are strip-tilling a lot of acres for better fertilizer placement and efficiency,” explains Henderson. 2022 will be an opportunity to apply lessons learned from on-farm and XtremeAg trials to be more effective and efficient with their 2×2×2 applications, he adds.

Like Matthews, Henderson is already using as much chicken litter as he can get his hands on in his low-CEC and low-organic-matter soils. 

Variable-rate fertilizer has been a part of Henderson’s management strategy for several years, so there’s no room for additional savings there.

Henderson doesn’t think a change to his crop rotation is a good way to cope with fertilizer prices, either. “We feel we are in it for the long haul and that’s just kicking the can down the road. Our rotation is what we feel has helped to produce the yields we attain,” he says.

Matt Miles, McGehee, Arkansas

What is happening in Arkansas?

Matt Miles farms more than 11,200 acres in Arkansas and raises six crops, including nitrogen-hungry corn, cotton, and rice. Miles has been running through the possible scenarios for months as he watched fertilizer prices climb.

The price of urea went from $400 per ton to $1,000 per ton. Miles has seen potash jump from $300 per ton earlier this year to $800 per ton now.

“It will cost $180 an acre more in nitrogen to grow corn in 2022 than it did in 2021. That’s not including the increased cost of all the other inputs we use to make our crops grow,” he estimates.

What is Matt Miles’ plan for 2022?

“We are managing risk by applying more manure on the P and K side,” Miles explains. He has been using poultry litter since 2006. “Litter costs are up a little, but nothing like the synthetic prices. The problem is that supply of litter is short due to many new farmers taking litter.” 

For nitrogen efficiency, Miles is considering some new practices. “We are looking at more utilization of products to help better manage our nitrogen in the soil. I am looking at nitrogen-fixing products such as Pivot Bio Proven 40,” he says.

Miles is reluctant to change his crop rotations but is still considering his options because he has several crops to choose from.

Kelly Garrett, Arion, Iowa

What is happening in Iowa?

Kelly Garrett farms 6,000 acres of corn, soybeans, and winter wheat in Iowa. In 2021 he set the state record for highest irrigated corn yield at 387.9 bushels per acre. Despite high fertilizer prices, he’s hoping to keep the momentum going for the 2022 growing season.

What is Kelly Garrett’s plan for 2022?

Garrett applied as much fertilizer as possible in the fall at prices he locked in ahead of time.

He’s trying to purchase spring supplies, like starter fertilizer, now to ensure his own inventory and protect against continued price increases.

Garrett has installed SelectShot, an in-furrow liquid fertilizer application system, on one of his planters. He’s excited to see whether this addition will save the operation money.

Changing crop rotations is not on Garrett’s radar. “We feel that the rotation we had in 2021 was the most profitable choice. That same rotation, which is about two-thirds corn and one-third beans, will be the most profitable rotation going forward for next year with the federal crop insurance prices on corn and beans,” he says.

Lee Lubbers, Gregory, South Dakota

What is happening in South Dakota?

Lee Lubbers farms about 17,000 acres of dryland soybeans, corn, and wheat near Gregory, South Dakota. In his area, fertilizer prices have more than doubled since the first of August. Many retailers wouldn’t give prices and commitments to customers since they couldn’t get product secured.

Lubbers is thankful he purchased fertilizer in midsummer. “Luckily, we have a long-term relationship with our supplier and were able to buy existing carryover product. If not for that, we would have been exposed like everyone else,” he says.

What is Lee Lubbers’ plan for 2022?

Because there are no large-scale feeding operations in Lubbers’ area, he doesn’t have the same options for manure his peers in the South have. There’s no sizable supply of manure to be had.

Lubbers doesn’t plan to change fertilizer application practices in the upcoming season. “We have separate rates on fields and utilize soil tests as well,” he says. “Since we have a good price on our fertility program, we definitely do not want to cut rates either. Our fertility program is a high ROI piece of our potential yield puzzle.”

They’re sticking to the original crop rotation plan on the Lubbers farm, too. “We don’t want to chase a market or throw off our rotation,” Lubbers says. “There is a lot of value in running our rotation in our operation. It affects workload, equipment, cash flow, yield potential, disease, and water management.”

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