June 8, 2006: You may have noticed your gasoline
is a bit more expensive these days. Farmers, likewise, are watching
their fertilizer costs skyrocket and trying to figure out how they
can keep up production levels as the price of their mainstay nitrogen
fertilizer jumps off the charts (Douglas Beegle, Expensive Nitrogen,
2006). In standard conventional corn farming, nitrogen fertilizer
is a key input. For a long time, nitrogen cost was considered cheap.
But as natural gas costs rise, synthetic N is no longer the bargain
it was once was (natural gas is a major input for making ammoniated
Not only was nitrogen historically cheap, but it packed a wallop
in terms of quick crop growth response. But that was then and this
is now. Now that nitrogen is not so cheap, how are we going to deal
with the changed cost structure? Now that commodity grain prices
are stagnant at best, how do we reconcile the spiraling costs of
these nitrogen inputs? Now that we know that heavy use of nitrogen
depletes the soil and pollutes our waterways, what adjustments are
we making? Both the questions and the answers are timely, for the
world has changed and we must change with it.
Traditionally, corn fertilizer is either put on up front or split
between a starter fertilizer and a side-dress application when corn
is knee high. Following fertilizer and lime recommendations given
by Ohio State University Cooperative Extension Service in 2003,
a farmer would have spent $62 to produce 150 bushel corn on 1 acre.
We called TiMac, a large fertilizer dealer in our area, and calculated
the cost of that same recommendation today at $132.70. The bottom
line is that fertilizer is no longer cheap. It is pretty hard to
see the margin you will have with $2-per-bushel corn on a $132.70
per-acre input cost for fertilizer alone.
Experiments have shown that when you put down starter fertilizer—which
is typically about 20 percent of the total fertilizer recommendation
and investment—you get 80 percent of the crop response. Conversely,
putting down layby fertilizer costs you 80 percent of your investment
to get 20 percent of the return. Yet most farmers do not use starter
fertilizer, as it slows their planting time. Even a starter fertilizer
option would cost you about $15 to $37 per acre today. This tweaking
can help, but a whole new approach is really what’s needed
to lower costs enough to realize any level of profit (profit that
is not dependant on price supports and commodity payments; both
of which might soon be the stuff of history).
Robert Rodale talked about the value of a farm’s natural
internal inputs and their ability to keep costs down as well as
regenerate, contributing to a thriving production system that improves
as they are used. Using your own resources is the key to getting
off the fertilizer treadmill—and related upward cost spiral—and
to reinvigorating your prospects in farming.
Before synthetic fertilizer, farmers had traditionally used legumes,
composts and manures as their corn nitrogen sources. Here at The
Rodale Institute, growing hairy vetch in late summer after wheat
allows us to capture our nitrogen for the cost of cropping the winter
annual. A sole crop of hairy vetch costs about $30 for hairy vetch
seed (30 pounds at a $1 per pound) and about $12 to plant and turn
it under. At 2003 levels, growing a vetch crop was about a wash
compared to fertilizer nitrogen, but in the current economy it will
be about half that of the nitrogen cost alone compared to a conventional
approach. Hairy vetch produces up to and exceeding the 150 pounds
of nitrogen needed for the nation’s average corn crop of 150
bushels per acre. Additionally, hairy vetch and winter cover crops
actually build the soil organic nitrogen supply (not to mention
improving soil structure and soil biology).
Our research has shown that you can reduce the hairy vetch seed
rate by half by using oats as a nurse crop. By adding a bushel of
oats, which will winter kill, you get better fall weed control,
you trap damaging soil nitrates, and the spring nitrogen production
of hairy vetch ends up the same as with the higher seeding rate.
With the oat nurse crop, the total cost of growing this mixture
is about $30 per acre—a good cost reduction from $42 per acre
for straight hairy vetch. We have shown in our long-term trials
that corn and soybean productivity can be maintained under cover-crop-fueled
systems at levels comparable to those fueled by synthetic chemistry
(namely, petroleum-derived agricultural products).
Because the natural input of cover crops builds soil over time,
we need fewer and fewer inputs each year rather than more because
our organic matter in soil builds up using this management approach.
Our farm has increased 30 percent in its soil-organic-matter base,
stimulating three times the microorganisms, which in turn recycle
twice the nutrients compared to a fertilizer- and pesticide-intensive
Growing winter annual cover crops has been shown to not only allow
cheap nitrogen for corn production but to control soil erosion and
nutrient losses that otherwise would occur in winter-fallow systems.
As the price of petroleum has increased, so have the costs of herbicides.
In our weed-sensitive soybean crop, rye can replace the use of escalating
herbicide costs (not only because the herbicides are increasingly
expensive, but also because growing resistance to products such
as Montanto’s Roundup means application rates are increasing).
With continuing problems with both input cost and water quality
issues related to both synthetic nutrient runoff and pesticides,
cover crops are the natural and friendly antidote for ailing farm
economies and for rising environmental and health problems related
to conventional farming systems.
Our farm manager, Jeff Moyer, received $18 per bushel on our cooked
organic soybeans for feed meal, $6.50 per bushel on organic feed
corn, and $6.25 per bushel on our organic wheat for organic pretzels.
In addition to great pricing, we are exceeding our county’s
yield averages on all crops we grow, and our crop yields have improved
over the years.
Here at The Rodale Institute, our organic agriculture adventure
began with a rain of criticism for promoting a production system
pundits said could never compete with conventional row-crop agriculture.
Our own long-term research, and now that of an increasing number
of collaborators, has demonstrated that the pundits were wrong!
Last year, Ohio State University researchers showed their organic
management was significantly more productive than conventional row-crop
agriculture, further confirming our own long-term results. At this
point there is no question about competing using organic practices;
the better question to ask is why government continues to support
dated and damaging agriculture systems that don’t make economic
or energetic sense (nevermind the toll they take on environmental
and human health).
It is time for farmers to take their futures into their own hands
and for our elected officials to support the fundamental changes
needed in our agriculture and food system (the latter group can
begin by fostering programs on cover crop education and by making
a support system available so this important practice can flourish).
We can see some progress under way in this arena. Close to home,
Penn State University provides a range of information on how to
measure the need for nitrogen. This includes soil, tissue and stalk
tests and worksheets for crediting rotation histories and for manure
application. These tests are useful for conventional, sustainable
and organic farmers alike.
With synthetic nitrogen costs at historic levels, this point in
history offers the perfect opportunity for all farmers to revise
the economics of their production systems and to change what is
necessary to maintain viability as farmers.