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Manage small for big returns

With near-record highs of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) as I write this article, a question I’ve been asked a lot lately is, “How much fertilizer should I ap­ply?” In response I say, “It depends.” I know. Brilliant, right?

But honestly, effective fertilization does depend on multiple factors, many of which you can control. Questions I might ask in return include, “What are your current soil test levels? What are your yield goals for this field? What are you doing to protect your fertility investment?”

As a district precision manager for MFA as well as a licensed MFA crop insurance agent, I spend much of my time thinking about risk management. Often on my mind are ways I can help farmers manage risk when it comes to fertility, and how I can help leverage their crop insur­ance to manage on-farm risk.

When it comes to managing your fertility investment, a key consid­eration is making sure that you are putting N, P and K in the right place at the right rates for the production goals of your fields. However, the first thing you need to address is soil pH. At MFA, we do that through Nutri-Track, a high-yield system that focuses on managing fertility on an acre-by-acre basis. A colleague of mine once said, “manage small for big returns,” and that hits the nail on the head.

Managing small by using Nutri- Track to properly correct pH can produce big returns. Low and high pH levels can tie up recently applied phosphorus to the point of making it unable to do its job of feeding the crop. Through precision applications, you can correct low areas with lime without raising pH in areas of fields that are already elevated or close to optimum. A flat rate of lime does not take into account current pH levels in your fields.

Much of the pH correction is done in the fall, and maybe you’ve already got your P and K applied and possibly part of your nitrogen for the upcoming crop. There are still things you can do to help pro­tect your fertility investment. One way is through in-season nitrogen management. MFA encourages split applications of nitrogen for several reasons. First, it promotes environ­mental stewardship. Second, we can better partner with our growers and provide more return on investment through accurate, in-season nitrogen recommendations.

MFA uses the Nutri-Track N com­puter model, powered by Adapt-N, to account for in-season losses through weather events and growing conditions on your specific fields. This allows our precision agronomy specialists to make an accurate ni­trogen recommendation during the growing season, which can go a long way toward helping maximize inputs applied ahead of your crop.

What if you haven’t yet applied P and K for next season? Nutri-Track is highly customizable. MFA fertility recommendations feature a build and removal component, and these types of recommendations provide the best results in my experience. However, in years with higher P and K prices, on some fields it may make sense to focus on removal only. May­be rented ground fits this scenario for your operation.

MFA can use yield monitor data to create recommendations that replen­ish P and K removed by the previous crop. While this option doesn’t build soil fertility, it can help place fertility where it will do the most good in the short term. The needed nutrients go to more productive acres without over-applying on less-productive acres. Better fertility placement allows you to raise overall farm yield averages and return on investment. Applying more P or K where you don’t need it—and not enough where you could use more—doesn’t make much sense. The removal-only approach, using yield monitor data, allows us to remedy that.

If you are not enrolled in Nutri- Track or don’t have a yield monitor for more precise recommendations, let me caution you that cutting fertilizer application rates on all fields equally is not the way to go. Focus on productivity levels and goals of each farm or field. Contact your local MFA manager, precision agronomy specialist or key account manager and work through where you should place fertility to best protect your input investment.

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