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CATTLE TODAY

ALTERNATIVE FERTILIZER OPTIONS CAN OFFSET HIGH COSTS

by: Clifford Mitchell

What items cost seems to be a great part of the American thought process these days. Most are frustrated not by the amount of money they make, but the price of every day garden variety items continually rising.

Grocery shoppers are shifting tastes from well known national brands to many house brands, within the local market. Some have even traded where they do business, if the price is right. Lower quality meats are becoming the centerpiece rather than filet mignon.

Cattlemen are not immune to increases in production costs. Fuel, feed and fertilizer have all made historic jumps over the last year or two, with many producers being priced out of a normal routine. Scratching heads and scribbled on tablets tell the story as many alternatives are explored to save a dollar here or there. Problem is; most, high cost items are necessary to produce beef. Unlike the every day shopper, there are few alternatives for ranching entities.

One area where forage producers may be able to help the budget is through alternative fertilizers. Certain areas make items available to cattlemen because of practices and industry known to the region. Some outfits currently take advantage of this, but for most it's time to become better grass farmers and explore new ideas.

“A soil test is the first step in the process, no matter what fertilizer source a producer is looking to use. Make sure your soil needs nutrients and the soil test will make recommendations based on a sufficiency philosophy,” says Larry Oldham, Mississippi State University.

“Take a soil test. We have a lot of low pH soils in the state. If soil pH is below five, then producers aren't getting the full benefit of their fertilizer anyway. We need to correct the pH problem to make efficient use of the fertilizer,” says Ed Twidwell, Louisiana State University.

Soil tests will help producers measure the level of fertilization needed to help the soil. Most producers need to re-evaluate the timing of soil testing and develop a data base, much like they would with production records in the cow herd.

“A soil sample costs $6 and traditional wisdom is to take one every three years. Producers need to take a yearly soil sample at the same time every year and keep records,” Oldham says. “We have a lot of different soil types. Based upon the soil test, a producer can identify viable options. I would advise producers to check with the local extension service to make sure what people are trying to sell them will actually work. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”

“Everyone is struggling from the crop producer to the cattlemen, based on the price of commercial fertilizer. Soil test and get a nutrient analysis for any form of alternative fertilizer. Make sure you need all the nutrients that source has available,” says Josh Payne, Oklahoma State University Area Extension, Waste Management Specialist.

One alternative for most producers may be lying, literally, right under their nose. Outfits could decrease fertilizer needs by utilizing every resource available. Other options include obvious and little known sources.

“Producers looking for alternatives need to make sure they are utilizing the manure they have. Get out in the fields break it up,” Twidwell says. “This helps some, but it's hard to put a value on it. Broiler litter works well and is a viable option in certain parts of the state. There are a few producers who take advantage of “sewage sludge” or bio-solids from some municipalities. Some areas have access to waste from crawfish and seafood processing plants, which are good fertilizer sources.”

“First, producers have to make sure they are making best use of the manure they produce,” Oldham says. “Chicken litter is an excellent fertilizer choice. However, in Mississippi, the demand exceeds the supply and producers are having trouble finding it. Bio-solids are available, but some producers shy away from all the paperwork and regulations. There are all kinds of suggestions, like wood ash, but the main thing is to check that salesman's claim with your local extension.”

“Chicken litter is a great alternative fertilizer source. It offers nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium along with organic matter and some liming benefit. Bio-solids and swine effluent are also good fertilizer sources,” Payne says. “In Oklahoma, we have a shortage of chicken litter. All three of these alternatives are somewhat limited because of transportation costs.”

As producers define alternatives, chicken litter, where available, can be a good option. Producers must always remember to match soil needs with fertilizer choice and use information provided in nutrient analysis to find “least cost” choices.

“I can't stress enough for producers to have a nutrient analysis of that manure. Determine what its worth based on a commercial fertilizer price. Litter is a good source of N, P and K, if your soil doesn't need all three nutrients, then it will not be a good choice. If your soil is sufficient in any one of these nutrients, the value of the litter goes down. A lot of value in a ton of chicken litter comes in the form of phosphorus and potassium. If your soil is adequate in these two nutrients, then it's cheaper to find a good source of nitrogen” Payne says. “What I tell producers is if you find it, get it shipped and a ground application under about $85 per ton, that's a good value. This number will change as the price in commercial fertilizer changes.”

“Poultry litter is an excellent source of all three nutrients (N, P and K) and it provides some level of micronutrients to the soil. Our research shows it can help soil properties with continued use. Availability is still the main limiting factor,” Oldham says. “I think nitrogen prices could eventually stabilize, but there are not a lot of substitutes for a good nitrogen source. We have some mixed material that contains urea that is subject to volatilization. Ammonium sulfate is a good alternative, but it builds soil acidity more quickly than other nitrogen fertilizers and that creates a whole new set of problems.”

Producers have a laundry list of items to evaluate when good options are being researched. Some alternatives come with hidden costs producers fail to realize when purchase agreements are made. Values placed on nutrient content will help decide economical options when producers sharpen the pencil and make choices that will benefit the operation.

“You don't have to haul chicken litter very far for it to lose its competitive advantage. It contains about 60 pounds of nitrogen per ton so producers need to figure price based on nutrients and amount of hauling. One concern we have with continued application of chicken litter is phosphorous buildup in the soil,” Twidwell says. “No matter if you're purchasing commercial or alternative fertilizer sources; make sure you figure price on a cost per unit basis. Even though chicken litter or some other source may seem cheaper per ton, you're not getting the same benefit.”

“Chicken litter may or may not be worth the “hassle factor” it takes to get it to your place and get it out on the fields. You can call the local co-op and sometimes have it delivered and spread in the same week. Research, in advance, the availability of chicken litter,” Payne says. “Producers have to know when the supplier is cleaning out his house and that usually depends on when he gets new birds. Most companies, who are in this business, will haul and spread litter.”

As with most forms of agricultural waste, our friendly environmentalist are always hiding behind a tree and calling foul when this odiferous material is applied to pastures or crop land. Further infringements on property rights have these same organizations blaming the oldest form of fertilization for stream contaminations and other problems. Extreme care must be taken when applying any form of nutrients to the soil.

“There a few causes for concern when it comes to chicken litter. The main one is when it's applied to small areas at high rates for extended periods of time. Common knowledge, over the years, has been it's a vector for weed seeds, but this isn't true. Application of chicken litter to the soil improves fertility so much, dormant weed seeds begin to sprout,” Oldham says. “It smells bad and feathers can be annoying and bulky. If you're not used to poultry litter, make sure you hire someone to spread it or have the proper equipment to get the job done.”

“You have to be more conscious of your neighbors when you spread manure than commercial fertilizers. You are probably going to get some complaints because of the odor,” Payne says. “From an environmental standpoint, there is just as much concern when applying commercial fertilizer or manure. Over applying any type of nutrient can cause problems. If producers put out fertilizers at the wrong time of year when the ground is saturated or we have high runoff, then there should be cause for concern.”

Knowing nutrient content may not be enough with some alternative sources. Understanding the physical properties and how they work can be important. Analysis will also help producers from bringing in anything they do not need or want to put on their soil.

“Broiler litter is a slow release nitrogen source and it will take longer to see the results than it does commercial fertilizers. Make sure the nutrients come in a form where plants can utilize them,” Twidwell says. “Producers are going to have to continually become better managers. A lot of times, I'll have producers call me and say the fertilizer didn't work. In reality, the soil pH was too low for the plants to take in the fertilizer.”

“A material nutrient analysis costs more than a soil test, but it should be provided when buying non-traditional fertilizers,” Oldham says. “Make sure the nutrients are plant available and make sure there are no byproducts in the fertilizer that we nee to limit in field applications.”

“Going green” seems to be big in ad campaigns and part of society. For some producers, incorporating legumes could be an option to more traditional forms of fertilization.

“A lot of people are planting clovers in our area. We're having a few problems perreniating these clovers, but hopefully we'll get that worked out soon. Clovers improve forage quality and extend the grazing period. It's hard to put a dollar figure on that,” Twidwell says. “Incorporating legumes is not a “cure all” there are costs associated and they require more management. If legumes are something a producer is thinking about it's time to look at soil pH. If it's too low, it won't change overnight. Legumes bring some atmospheric nitrogen into the soil. The benefit of better forage and longer grazing periods plus added nitrogen in the soil, will outweigh the initial costs.”

At the ranch level, it seems the bandits are there to steal profit from every angle. With some outfits, poor management is embezzling added returns and going unnoticed. Some alternatives may, in fact, put that profit in the safe or send the embezzler to jail, but there is no substitute for good management and resource allocation.

“Keep track of costs and better manage the soil. I don't think that's a high enough priority. Producers are going to have to manage their forages better with the high cost of fertilizer,” Twidwell says. “I encourage producers to investigate any alternative that may be unique to the area. You never know when you might have a cheap alternative close to home. Anything that a producer can do to cheapen the fertilizer bill, will help the bottom line.”

“I am not anticipating a down turn in fertilizer prices for a while due to all the economic factors involved,” Oldham says. “Producers need to take a hard look at their soil test results. This won't eliminate the need for fertilizer, but we can better manage our soil.”

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