The cost and availability of fertilizer took an unprecedented roller coaster ride in 2008, leaving many farmers wondering — what's next. The best answer is more efficient use of more efficient fertilizers that best fit your farming operation.

Mark Alley, a Virginia Tech soil scientist and friend and advisor to hundreds of Virginia farmers, says put more confidence in proven products than on marketing claims, when it comes to fertilizer selections for 2009.

Speaking at the recent Fertilizer Outlook and Technology Conference, Alley said, “Farmers and companies that release fertilizer products need to realize we are dealing with complex biological and environmental conditions. No material is going to provide benefits in every situation.”

For example, “If I am looking at the DTN weather station in my farm shop and I see a front is moving through that is likely to give me a half inch or so of rain tonight. Do I want to use a product like Agritain on the urea that I'm going to spread in the next two hours?

“No! We're not going to have any volatilization loss. If I've spread that urea and I look at my long-range weather forecast and I've got seven to 10 days forecast with no rain — that's when I use Agritain,” Alley adds.

Both dry and liquid N products can be used for top-dressing wheat. Dry products may be less expensive, while liquid products may offer the advantage of being used as a herbicide carrier.

Urea solutions offer an added advantage of reduced leaf burn. “Dry granular products can be applied at any rate. If dry urea is used, it might be wise to also have it coated with Agritain, which is a tried, tested and proven urease inhibitor, and gives about 10 days of protection from volatility.”

Farmers and the companies that market fertilizer products need to be more diligent in identifying situations that magnify the opportunity for products to perform well. “As farmers enter into the 2009 cropping season, with all the economic uncertainties facing them, it is more critical than ever to make the right choices for crop nutrients,” Alley stresses.

“Everyone would love to recommend the magic bullet that makes the crop grow better and makes more money for the grower. To get maximum effect from the magic bullet requires better identification of the target and the desired results,” he adds.

Unfortunately, too many times marketing claims of products are difficult to demonstrate in research and on-farm testing.

“In the last two years, I've taken some things directly out of literature that has come to my office — all relate to fertilizer efficiency. Following are a few of these items,” Alley says.

  • Eliminates fixation of fertilizer by soil.

  • Fertilize the plant not the soil.

  • Lasts for entire growing season.

  • Average yield increases of 10 percent-15 percent consistently.

  • Protects nutrients from soil loss.

  • Increase plant root function.

  • Improves nutrient availability by 25 percent.

  • You can reduce your fertilizer cost without reducing yield.

“All of these claims are good for farmers. However, none of these claims come with any documentation from published scientific data as to what mechanisms cause these products to work.”

“I tell all the people in industry with whom I work with that you can shoot yourself in the foot real quickly by not providing the mechanism that causes your product to work. From a university perspective, it makes it difficult for us to recommend to growers to use the product at all — much less under which growing conditions, when to apply it and a multitude of other management decisions that a grower needs to make when choosing inputs to his crop,” Alley stresses.

One of the above claims came from a fertilizer enhancement product that was tested in a farmer trial. The product cost $17 per acre. The farmer said, hey, at the price of fertilizer this may be a good deal.

“We mixed the product up, put it on the field and sure enough the farmer got similar results as what our field tests showed. Did the good result come from the product? We don't know, because there is no published data on ‘how’ the product works,” Alley explains.

Alley says farmers and fertilizer product manufacturers alike need to understand the complexity of getting the right nutrients to a plant at the optimum time to provide optimum results.

Quoting Jerry Hatfield, a USDA soil scientist and long-time friend, Alley says, “Providing adequate plant nutrients to growing crops is not rocket science, it is a lot more complex!”

“I encourage any company with fertilizer or fertilizer enhancement products to find cooperators among farmers or with university Extension personnel and get the data published. “Knowing why a product works and doesn't work under specific conditions is good for the farmer and good for the company making the product.

“I work with a lot of companies and look at a lot of products, and I've never found a company representative yet, who wants to go visit a farmer and explain why his product didn't work. Giving a product the best chance to work goes a long way toward avoiding those kinds of farmer visits,” Alley says.

The volatility that became a constant companion, if not constant fear for farmers in 2008, is likely to leave many looking at lower cost fertilizer options. It will also likely encourage farmers to look more closely at myriad fertilizer enhancement or additive products.

Making the right management decisions on all crop inputs in 2009 will likely be a more pivotal decision than in previous years. With so many uncertainties in the marketplace, efficiency remains the constant for farm efficiency.