Fertilizer prices have moderated in the last year or two from insane to merely crazy, says Texas AgriLife Extension soil fertility specialist Mark McFarland.

“After 2003 fertilizer got pricey,” McFarland said during the annual Ag Technology conference, held on the Texas A&M-Commerce campus. “In early 2008 and 2009 fertilizer prices got ridiculous,” he said. Energy costs, hurricanes, changes in sourcing, and increased competition from other countries all contributed to price hikes, he said.

“Price has moderated some,” he said, but it’s nowhere near normal and still well above 2003 prices, which he said will not return.

Better nutrient management becomes increasingly important as farmers struggle to find ways to maintain yields without significant production cost increases that may stem from those high fertilizer prices. McFarland recommends changes in soil testing procedures, sources and types of nutrients as they develop crop production plans.

“We have to do a better job of managing nutrients,” he said. “Anything we add to the soil changes the soil chemistry and can change the nutrient balance.”

He said healthy, properly fed plants are more resistant to diseases, insects and other stresses. “Fertility affects how competitive a plant can be. Feed it well and it out competes unwanted plants. Or, producers can increase input costs to control weeds.”

Environmental issues

He said environmental issues affect fertility. Too much rain may leach nutrients away and drought may limit uptake. He cautioned growers to be cognizant of water contamination issues and be wary of nitrogen and phosphorus near bodies of water.

“If we don’t manage nutrients properly, we could be required to get a fertilizer permit and application license. In some areas in the United States farmers already have to develop a nutrient plan and to obtain a license,” he said.

“Agricultural producers are taking care of business and managing nutrients properly. We don’t need regulation.”

He said producers should consider four keys to fertility management: type, rate, method of application and timing. “Also evaluate fertilizer use efficiency, how much gets into the plant.”

Soil test proven

Determining the type of fertilizer, and the rate needed should depend on soil test recommendations. “Soil testing is proven scientific technology and works extremely well. With current fertilizer prices, soil testing is essential. If fertilizer is 50 cents a pound, we need to test every year and use those dollars efficiently.”

McFarland said accurate soil tests account for nutrient carryover. “Nutrients occur naturally in the soil,” he said. “Poor crop years may also leave residual fertilizer for a subsequent crop.

“Measure the amount in the soil and evaluate the needs of the crop and yield goals. Then get a sound recommendation.”

He said waiting until a deficiency shows up before altering fertilization practices hurts production. “By the time you see a deficiency, the crop is already damaged.”