Mississippi: Efficient Fertilizer Use Brings Crop Dividends

Corn fertilizer application. ©Debra L Ferguson Stock Photography

Farms profit margins vary as input costs rise and market prices fluctuate, making every expense significant.

Profit margins, input costs and returns on investment were addressed at the 2018 Row Crop Short Course held in December. Nearly 800 growers, crop consultants, industry representatives and Mississippi State University experts gathered for the event.

Organized and sponsored by the MSU Extension Service, the short course is strategically held after the growing season to provide three days of targeted information and education.

A recurring theme this year was the need to fertilize efficiently and effectively to meet the world’s growing demand for food, as well as to maximize return on investment.

Andy Gipson, commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, said agriculture is the state’s largest and most important industry, employing about 29 percent of the state’s workforce.

“Mississippi farmers contribute to the exports needed to feed the world,” Gipson said, noting that in 2018, the state began exporting poultry to India. “One out of three acres in Mississippi agriculture is destined for some type of export.”

Darrin Dodds, MSU Extension Service cotton specialist and Row Crops Short Course organizer, said farmers must invest wisely in fertilizer and other inputs.

“We’ve made some really big crops, but they’ve come at a very big expense,” Dodds said.

He said nitrogen is the most important fertilizer for cotton, and underapplying and overapplying this nutrient can have consequences. In addition, growers sometimes overlook correcting soil pH with lime, and potash deficiency has been appearing more frequently over the past several growing seasons.

“What I want you to think about with fertilizer application is the money you’re getting back for the money you’re putting in,” Dodds said.

Trey Cutts of Yara North America explained the relationship between ammonia and urea production and natural gas, the raw material. He said grain stocks and prices are the best correlation to the price of urea and fertilizers.

“Ammonia and urea production are usually done where natural gas prices are cheap,” Cutts said. “Because China imports and exports so much urea, they set the floor for this price.”

Ross Bender of Mosaic Company talked about the need for sulfur in plant nutrition, explaining how this secondary macronutrient is the fourth most needed nutrient after nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

He said much of the sulfur needed for plant growth came from atmospheric sulfur deposition, or acid rain, in the past. However, emissions control has greatly reduced the amount of sulfur available from the air.

“Animal manure, organic matter and the air are sources of sulfur for crops; the rest has to come from fertilizer,” Bender said. “Sulfur is mobile in the soil, and season-long availability of sulfur is critical.”

Experts gave these and many other general and crop-specific recommendations to growers at the annual row crop short course. For data and recommendations from the MSU Extension Service during the crop-growing season, visit http://www.mississippi-crops.com.


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