While each of the 4Rs —the right fertilizer source at the right rate, the right time and the right place — are important to consider individually to improve water quality, they also must be looked at as an interconnected system. Each of the Rs impacts the others.
The right source, for example, depends on the rate required, the timing and placement. John Fritz , precision specialist for The Andersons, Inc., has found that liquid fertilizers are often the right source because of the advantages they offer the other Rs.
“Liquid product is often the right product because you can put it in the right place. If you put the right product in the wrong place it won’t do any good,” Fritz said. “Liquid products benefit the economics, agronomics and the environment by combining the right product with the right rate in the right place at the right time. Any of the products we are selling are only successful based on the way they are placed. If they are used wrong, you sort of defeat the purpose. Any product can work if it is placed properly and it won’t work if it is placed improperly. The 4Rs sort of intertwine.”
In many operations, farmers have found a number of agronomic benefits with the use of liquid fertilizer products that can directly improve productivity.
“Being up by Lake Erie, we have always seen a good response with row starters because of the coolness of the spring weather. This area is a lot cooler than other parts of the state,” Fritz said. “If we have a northeast wind blowing off Lake Erie it keeps everything cooler and we see good agronomic response to in-furrow or two-by-two liquid starter. It is usually 10-34-0 and we’ll mix that with 28% or ammonium thiosulfate which is 12-0-0-26 — we are using a lot more of that. As we soil test we are seeing a steady decline in the sulfur soil test levels and a need for some supplemental sulfur.”
Low salt liquid fertilizer products in particular can be valuable early in the season because they are formulated to not injure the seed at planting. These products can be applied to provide what that seed needs exactly when and where it is needed.
“The low salt products can provide a little bit of a kick for the seed with just a little phosphate in just the right place for the seed,” he said. “Hopefully we see some yield benefit because you start with a healthier corn plant getting up out of the ground in the spring. With the liquid in-furrow we keep it as efficient as we can. By doing that we are hopefully using less product and we can keep trace elements in as well.”
The more specialized liquid products can address specific challenges.
“In fields with high phosphorus soil test levels, we have been able to cut back on P in the two-by-two by putting some in with the pop-up fertilizer to get better efficiency and agronomic benefit for the crop. In the high phosphate situations we may just use straight 28% and then use an in-furrow product to get a little phosphate on so the plant can get what it needs early. Even in the high phosphate soils we are still seeing some benefit with some phosphate in-furrow because it gives the young plant a jump in the cool spring conditions we have around here,” Fritz said. “We have situations with high pH where we are using two-by-two placement of the row starter and also a pop-up. That high pH will tend to tie up phosphate. Liquid can reduce tie up and get the most efficiency with the amounts we’re using because it can be put where it needs to be early in the season.”
In many cases liquid products are also becoming more popular because of the convenience they offer.
“We have seen a real increase with the low salt pop-up fertilizer with the planter. We have had guys converting from dry to liquid for their planters. And probably the biggest thing we have seen lately is more usage of in-furrow fertilizer. Guys are able to put an insecticide with it,” Fritz said. “And 10-34-0 too — guys who have just started using that are seeing a convenience factor and with pop-ups there is more efficient use of phosphate. As guys move away from the dry planters they go to the liquid planters just because they are easier. That has been happening for the last 15 or 20 years. You can just about count the guys with dry row fertilizer on two hands any more.”
The plant’s nutrient needs are far from over once it is up and out of the ground. Additional liquid fertility options can often be the best option to help meet those needs later in the season as well.
“For sidedress we primarily use 28%. In certain soil conditions we have looked at using liquid potash with Roundup or fungicide applications in corn and soybeans. We’ll put on a gallon and a half of Overpass SF with the equivalent of a pint and a half of manganese. In this area we see a lot of manganese deficiencies in our heavier ground,” Fritz said. “We use Overpass CF 22-0-2 on corn for foliar feeding and it is 25% slow release nitrogen also. If we have had a lot of rain we will use that as a supplemental nitrogen product. This year we did some tests with 360 Y-Drops and we’ll see how that works. Last year, late applied nitrogen paid off because we had a lot of rain. We have had situations where a customer hasn’t been able to sidedress and we supplemented with the foliar applications. You get better efficiency with foliar applied versus soil applied N. In a pinch I think it can work to apply that with an airplane instead of sidedressing, but it’s more expensive. We have used it on soybeans too to give them and extra kick from the nitrogen.”
Liquid products generally do cost more, but they are also more valuable.
“Using liquid fertilizer is about the same or more economically. It is a higher cost than dry, but guys who take direct shipments to their farm sort of even that price out. Low salt pop-ups are higher cost because of the way they are made to avoid hurting the seed. But we’re hoping that with the higher cost, we get more efficiency and get the plant a faster start, which ends up producing a higher yield for a positive return on investment. If they are using it they see the value in it,” Fritz said. “We have seen examples where guys have split the planters and everybody we have had use this can see the difference in the health quality of the plant early in the season.”
The timing, of course, is also critical both for the maximum benefit for the plant and for reducing the environmental implications of fertilizer use.
“The low salt products are extremely efficient and anything that is foliar applied is too, but those can’t be applied in the fall. We have really gotten away from fall application. We have seen a big shift there. It makes more work for us in the spring and it is much less convenient because we used to be very heavy in the fall but we have gotten great support from our clients and it has worked out. A high percentage of our customers understand the situation and have been working with us on it very well,” Fritz said. “We know we have to apply anything with phosphate in the spring. The number of acres we are covering in the spring has tripled. We still have a little ways to go but we have gotten along really well and we feel like our clients have not been shorted. We just have to put a lot more hours in during the spring to get it done and bad weather in the spring makes you feel very uneasy.”
The expanding use of liquid fertilizer products industry-wide has been a significant part of the increased efforts to work with Ohio agriculture on improving water quality. The Andersons, Inc. has taken the additional step of going through the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program. The Andersons, Inc. has four certified facilities including the Fremont location where Fritz works. Fritz also sits on the Nutrient Stewardship Council that oversees the requirements of the certification process.
“For us, the certification process has gone very well. When we had our initial audit for the program it went better than I thought, but we still had a couple things we needed to fix,” Fritz said. “We were doing most of the right things already, we just had to do them more uniformly. One thing I think we are doing differently now is on our soil testing. In the past, if we didn’t get a couple of fields done here or there we didn’t worry about it. Now we make sure we get as close to 100% done as possible.”
There has also be a general reduction in application rates.
“We have increased our variable rate application of fertilizer and are basing rates more on the tri-state recommendations, which are a little lower than the crop removal rates we had been using. We have seen a decrease in sales because of that,” he said. “We also really had to work at talking with the customers about sensitive and restricted areas for nutrient application. When we get to highly erodible land, creeks, or tile risers we have to be careful. We are trying to get all of those sensitive areas documented so we can communicate with the operators that those are spots we need to watch.”
With more communication and a unified goal with their farmer customers to minimize nutrient loss, real progress has been made through the 4R certification process for The Andersons.
“I think the biggest thing is that the farmer has definitely accepted the program and accepted the fact that he does need to do some things differently to help fix the problem,” he said. “I have been realty pleased with the acceptance we have gotten with this program with the farmers.”
There is, however, still a tremendous knowledge gap with the non-farm public.
“We want the non-farm public to know too that we are doing everything we can to fix this issue,” Fritz said. “We still have work to do with the non-farm sector.”