Soil fertility should be central to all management decisions Most farmers don't have to be told about the importance of reducing input costs when prices are as low as they have been the last two or three years.
But, at what point do you move from saving money to sacrificing yield and, thus, actually increase your costs of production? When does cutting back on fertilizer, for example, lead to mining your soils and undermining the potential for profits?
Those are the kinds of questions being asked by the developers of a new program put together by the fertilizer industry. Called "Back to Basics," the program asks growers to think about the impact on their soils when making input decisions.
"Research shows that at least one third of a crop's yield is attributed to the fertilizer alone," says Cliff Snyder, Mid-South director for the Potash & Phosphate Institute, one of the sponsors of the program. "Farmers considering cutting this critical input may severely impair the potential for top yields and profits."
Snyder says studies indicate that over the last ten years farmers have not been spending as much time on soil fertility as they have on other, seemingly more pressing issues such as transgenic varieties and weed and insect control.
As a result, higher percentages of soils are testing medium or below in phosphorus and potassium or at pH levels below 6.0 at a time when growers need all the bushels of grain or pounds of cotton they can harvest.
"It's important that you manage to produce on the highest level," says Ray Hoyum, vice president of market development and communications with IMC Global Operations Inc., another sponsor of the program. "We think that's how producers will survive in this kind of environment."
A four-year study in Iowa revealed that nearly 70 percent of increased income for top growers was attributable to higher yields, while only one-fifth of increased income came from cost reduction, Snyder says.
"We all appreciate the importance of cost control, but the primary driving force behind profit most often is the production of higher, more efficient crop yields," he said.
Snyder notes that today's faster fruiting, higher yielding crops typically remove large amounts of phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients. Thus, growers should examine soil fertility levels this fall to make sure they're not short-changing those crops.
"Soil testing is the single most important tool for long-term, strategic P and K planning," says Hoyum. "Fall is an ideal time for soil testing because samples collected immediately following harvest provide the best assessment of the minimum nutrient levels available for next year's crop."
Applying fertilizers in the fall also gives the materials more time to become available for crops, he said. "Phosphorus and potassium generally move very slowly through the soil, and applying fertilizer before winter allows more time for the nutrients to react and penetrate into the root zone."
That's not to mention the potential timesaving in the spring when planting operations are likely to be more hectic and the potential dollar savings from dealers to encourage fall applications.
Snyder says that while maintaining an adequate level of soil nutrients helps growers build their crops' yield potential, it also helps manage their soil, water and other environmental resources.
"Increased nutrient-use efficiency can produce higher yielding crops on fewer acres and may free more marginal production land for buffer strips and wetland reclamation projects," says Snyder, whose non-profit organization is devoted to developing and promoting agronomically, economically and environmental sound information on soil nutrients.
Crops grown in soils with readily available nutrients are healthier, mature on schedule and offer increased yields and quality, says Hoyum.
"Skimping on fertilizer may lead to crop nutrient mining, which can ultimately erode yields and quality," he says. "Growers need to keep the basics of proper fertilization in mind this fall when they establish their goals for next year."
Hoyum said the program's sponsors have sent "Back to Basics" kits to farmers, consultants, farm supply dealers and ag lenders to stress the importance of fall soil testing and fall applications of fertilizers to bring nutrients up to adequate levels.
"There have been so many new things occurring in agriculture the last four or five years that farmers have been distracted from focusing on the basics such as soil fertility," he noted. "This is designed to increase awareness of the problem and help farmers survive the current economic problems."
For more timely, region-specific information on managing soil fertility, farmers can look at the www.back-to-basics.net site on the Internet.