Feb. 14 2022 08:00 AM

Abby Bauer
Anyone paying the bills to fertilize fields, heat a home, or both knows that those expenses have been draining more from the bank account as of late. Sky-high prices from 2021 bled into the new year, leaving 2022 filled with uncertainty as to where these values will go.

Anhydrous ammonia and natural gas are closely linked, because natural gas is a key element in the process that converts nitrogen to ammonia in a reaction with hydrogen to create this nitrogen fertilizer source. So, when natural gas prices nearly doubled between January and October of last year, it didn’t take long for anhydrous ammonia to follow suit. The year started out with a price tag of $450 per ton and exploded to quotes as high as $1,350 per ton for anhydrous ammonia later in 2021.

No doubt, the price of these two inputs impacts other farm choices and expenses. According to Michigan State University assistant professor Matthew Gammans, “Natural gas drives what happens with ammonia price, which drives decisions around corn planting in the spring, which ultimately affects the corn price. The three are very tightly linked.”

Enter manure. Fortunately, when fertilizer prices are high, livestock producers have another tool in their toolbox that most crop farmers don’t have readily available. Manure has been used for centuries to nourish fields, but at a time when fertilizer prices are through the roof, it is really an opportunity for manure to shine.

Improved manure management over the past few decades has reaped even greater rewards from this abundant by-product that livestock farmers must deal with anyway. Even though many nutrient management practices are established due to regulations that have been put into place to protect water quality, farmers who want to take true advantage of the power of manure would do these things regardless. During an interview with Jason Demaray, general manager of support services at Reicks View Farms featured on page 12, he stated this very clearly.

“We are regulated, but it’s the value of the manure that really drives more of that than the regulations,” Demaray shared about their nutrient management. “It’s not just a cost of disposal for us; it’s really a co-product. It’s a very valuable byproduct of producing pigs that we can fully utilize. The economics drive more decisions than regulations.”

Years like this make manure and soil testing even more imperative. If you know the nutrient content of the manure you have at your disposal, it can be best put to use. As for soil, tests may reveal a nice stockpile of phosphorus or potassium in some of your fields.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to reduce commercial fertilizer use this year. However, don’t shortchange fields that would benefit from application, as the immediate cost savings could result in lost profits at harvest. And, if you cut back on applications this year and utilize more of the nutrients banked in the soil, don’t forget to replenish those inventories down the road.

Aside from being an economic benefit, using manure to its fullest potential is also a compelling part of agriculture’s sustainability story. If we can recycle a waste product by using it as fertilizer to grow crops that feed animals, while reducing the need for commercially-made products, that is about as sustainable as it gets.

Whether we like it or not, the goal of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions is here to stay. From television news reports to presentations at conference to articles in magazines like this one, it will remain a topic of conversation. More and more, it feels like a light is getting shined onto agriculture. Rather than seeing that light as a microscope evaluating our every move, perhaps we can make this agriculture’s time to shine in the world’s sustainability efforts.

Until next time,

Abby Bauer

This article appeared in the February 2022 issue of Journal of Nutrient Management on page 4.

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