OMAHA (DTN) -- Like many farmers in the Corn Belt, South Dakota farmer and cattleman Jason Frerichs got very little fieldwork completed after harvest last fall. That means he -- and many others -- will be applying most of their fertilizer this spring. That could be a challenge, depending on the weather.
Frerichs, who farms near Wilmot, South Dakota, said he normally applies some fertilizer and does tillage during the period between the completion of harvest and the start of winter. But that didn't happen last fall.
"We just didn't have that window which we normally see to get some things done," Frerichs told DTN.
That means Frerichs, along with the majority of Corn Belt farmers, will have to apply fertilizer in the spring, an already busy time for farmers and fertilizer retailers.
The weather will have a huge effect on how smoothly fertilizer application goes this spring. Farmers and fertilizer retailers will have to work together to ensure nutrients get applied this spring, according to experts.
WET WEATHER SLOWS FIELDWORK
DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson said wet conditions beginning last fall across most of the Corn Belt slowed down harvest. This, in turn, contributed to little fieldwork being completed after harvest.
Anderson said much of the central U.S. has soil moisture levels in the 90th percentile or higher, and soils are saturated and much wetter than a year ago. Because of the wet ground, low temperatures and moderate-to-heavy snowpack, the flood risk is high this spring, he said.
"There are many examples of heavy precipitation, but a notable one to me comes from a conversation I had with a producer in northeastern Arkansas, in the Mississippi Delta," Anderson said. "Back in early February, he told me that he had already had 30 inches of rain since Nov. 1, 2018, and there's been a lot more since that exchange."
Mitch Bambauer, co-owner of Bambauer Fertilizer and Seed Inc. of New Knoxville, Ohio, said harvest was a slow-moving affair last fall. Soybeans that were slow to dry down and a large corn crop combined to slow farmers down.
As a result, fieldwork was limited after harvest. Bambauer estimated his farmer customers only covered about 60% to 70% of the acres they wanted to cover in the fall.
Bambauer said, in his home region of west-central Ohio, farmers normally apply some phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) in the fall but apply very little nitrogen in the fall. Because of the soils of the region, there would be some issues with keeping nitrogen in the soils until the spring, he said.
Some lime and gypsum was also applied this fall, he said.
Bambauer said they have seen extremely narrow windows to apply dry fertilizer this winter. Some fertilizer was applied in-between snowstorms, but applications have been limited to certain fields, as farmers can't apply nutrients to fields with standing water.
SPRING WEATHER KEY
What ultimately will decide how easily nutrients are applied this spring will be the weather and the amount of precipitation seen.
If spring is warm and dry, applicators will have more time to apply fertilizer. However, if it's a cold, wet spring, there could be some issues getting fertilizer applied before planting, Bambauer said.
While it's still winter, there are already some warning signs that the weather could create challenges for fieldwork this spring.
Anderson said the forecast for this spring looks to be quite cold through the first half of March. The weather pattern also looks to continue to be unsettled, which means that periods of rain and/or snow are likely to stick around and cause some notable delays in farmers getting into the fields this spring, he said.
NORTHERN PLAINS CONCERNS
Besides the weather, farmers could face many different issues this spring as they attempt to apply fertilizer. Frerichs is concerned about fertilizer logistics for his home area of northeastern South Dakota this spring, as the Northern Plains always seems to have issues getting a steady fertilizer supply.
Issues with river and rail traffic moving fertilizer into the region in past springs have slowed the amount of fertilizer available to farmers, he said. Supply issues can also lead to short-term price spikes in retail fertilizer.
"I would say I'm cautious, but not panicking about what this spring could be like," Frerichs said.
His fertilizer plan is to apply as much as fertilizer as he and his brother, Aaron, can in the spring themselves. He would like to avoid paying for application, which has significantly increased in cost in recent years, he said.
However, he said he knows this may not happen this spring due to the narrow application window, and some custom application may be in the cards.
Frerichs said most of his fertilizer is either applied in liquid or dry form. Normally, in the spring, he applies liquid nitrogen at or near planting and then does a sidedressing application trip afterward, he said.
NO EARLY START
Farther south Doug Saathoff is also looking at a busy spring. The Trumbull, Nebraska, farmer did not get anything done beyond harvest last fall. By the time he helped his family finish corn harvest, winter weather had already arrived in central Nebraska.
Usually, Saathoff applies anhydrous in the fall after harvest, closes some pivot tracks and does some chiseling. Last fall, he didn't do any of those chores.
Saathoff normally applies nitrogen in the spring in liquid form and then utilizes sidedressing for a later application of nitrogen. In addition, since some of his farms have center pivot irrigation systems, he has the ability to fertigate -- apply fertilizer through the pivot.
The snow and cold weather in February does have Saathoff somewhat concerned about getting all of his fertilizer applied in a timely fashion this spring. It doesn't appear there is an early spring in sight, he said.
"Some years, we can start applying liquid nitrogen in mid-March, but this certainly doesn't look to be a spring we will be able to do this," Saathoff said. "I would say my concern would be maybe a five or six on a scale from one (least concerned) to 10 (most concerned)."
It will be a busy spring whenever it does start, he said.
START PLANNING NOW
Bambauer said planning now can help farmers and fertilizer retailers have a more productive application season this spring, whenever it begins.
"I think one thing that can help is to have a plan in place (with your fertilizer retailer) before spring," Bambauer said. "Then you should have a back-up plan and be willing to be flexible."
Bambauer said he will try to meet with his farmer customers before spring to talk about their nutrient application plans.
One practice that helps to spread out the application process across a wider window during a busy spring is sidedressing nutrients, Bambauer said. It isn't a cure-all, though. Some nutrients still have to be available to plants at planting time, he said.
Russ Quinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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