Fertilizer prices continued to soar to record highs as the 2021 fall harvest moved into its latter stages, leaving growers with yet another primary concern as they begin planning for next year.
And while there’s not much that can be done from the farm level to slow price increases, there are options for making fertilizer applications more cost efficient.
“The need for precision soil sampling and variable-rate applications has never been greater,” says Daniel Mullenix, Senior Manager of Ag Technologies for GreenPoint Ag. “Most of the fertilizer blends we applied last year were in the $400-per-ton range, but now they’re trending in the $700-per-ton range, and there’s no end in sight.”
GreenPoint Ag’s AccuField — a full-service ag technology and information platform—is a premiere soil fertility tool, and precision agriculture is at its core, Mullenix says.
“Through this platform, we can help a grower through grid sampling their field on a fairly regular basis—in 2½ or 5-acre grids—or through zone sampling their fields using historical yield data or a digital data-driven approach,” he says. “This gives us an accurate assessment of what’s happening in that field in terms of soil fertility.”
Without such precision, a grower may pull one or two composite samples from an entire field, costing them money in the long run.
“By doing that, growers might be basing a fertility recommendation on one or two points in a field,” Mullenix says. “Random sampling could very well cost a grower more money at a time when they can least afford it.”
When pulling a random sample, it could be from a spot where fertility is high, such as an old dump site for chicken litter, gin trash, or some other soil amendment, he says.
“The residual effect of the nutrient is there, and you could get a sample thinking it is representative of the entire field rather than being skewed due to a historical practice,” Mullenix says.
On the flip side, a random sample could come from a spot in the field with historically low nutrient levels.
With AccuField, grid sampling or zone sampling can be used based on available yield data or field performance, Mullenix says. This allows a grower to know exactly what is happening in a field from a soil fertility standpoint.
“You can spend money more wisely as you variably apply nutrients across a field to maintain fertility, maximize yield potential, or to stick to a budget,” he says. “Considering the cost of fertilizer this year, more growers probably will be looking at budgeting. We can help growers assess what is in their soil bank from an agronomic standpoint and what they need to do to be mindful of their budget for the coming year.”
AccuField allows for custom recommendations and fertility plans and can incorporate any recommendations from commercial and public testing labs throughout the southeastern U.S., Mullenix says.
“If a grower likes a certain aspect of what a specific lab recommends, we can customize their soil fertility plan to include that.”
Mullenix recommends soil sampling as early as possible, depending on the crop situation.
“That means as soon as the crops come off,” he says. “If it’s cotton, as soon as the stalks are mowed or pulled, come in behind that, pull soil samples, and then begin putting together and executing a plan.”
If soil moisture is too dry or too wet, it will skew soil sample results. Also, it is important to sample at about the same time each year to avoid seasonal variability in soil tests.
Soil pH is another important factor, Mullenix says. “If we’re mindful of our soil pH, then we give the nutrients that are in the soil the maximum ability to be available to the plants. Managing soil pH in a tight range is imperative. Lime will be the cheapest and most beneficial soil amendment you’ll ever apply, even more so this coming year.”
Applying just one ton or a half ton of lime at a time is no longer good enough, he says.
“It’s rare that a grower doesn’t get a good result by pulling the soil samples and then variably applying lime instead of doing a straight rate,” he explains. “The difference in savings on lime usually pays for the soil sampling, lab analysis, and the fee for customized recommendations for a soil fertility plan.”
AccuField is equally beneficial for tech-savvy growers and for those who prefer a hands-off approach, Mullenix says.
“We have growers who want to sit down with paper maps, and they never have to log onto a computer,” he says. “Growers can work with GreenPoint Ag or their Co-op to execute a soil fertility or variable-rate lime program.
“On the flip side, some growers enjoy logging into AccuField to set up or tweak their plans themself. If you recognize the need on your farm for technology, let us come out and help work up a plan customized for you.” Entering its 10th year of service to growers, AccuField has made a commitment to increase its offerings and deliverables.
“Our focus in this 10th year moving forward is to capitalize on enhanced metrics and return on investment tools in bringing precision ag to life for growers in a way they might not have envisioned before,” Mullenix says. “We started 10 years ago with a team of one, and now we have 12 precision ag specialists who serve a 10-state footprint. We have a multi-tier support staff to give farmers what they need and when they need it because farming doesn’t wait on anyone.”