Warm Winter Pushes Fertilizer Choices

Farmers Consider Fertilizer Decisions with Mild Weather, Early Spring

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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A mild winter and early spring might allow farmers to have more flexibility when it comes to fertilizer application. (DTN file photo by Elaine Shein)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The mild winter and perhaps an early arrival of spring has Midwestern farmers mulling over their fertilizer decisions in March when soils are usually still frozen.

Experts urge farmers to take this extra time to test their soils to make sure fertilizer is really needed. With a warmer and dry winter, fertilizer losses could be somewhat limited.


In a podcast titled "University of Minnesota Nutrient Management Podcast Episode: Spring fertilizer outlook: Key decisions after a warm winter" (https://nutrientmanagement.transistor.fm/…), four University of Minnesota Extension nutrient management specialists discussed some key decisions farmers should consider after the mild winter the state of Minnesota saw this winter.

Warmer conditions have led to less snow cover and farmers will be able to get into the field sooner across the state. This is even true for northern Minnesota, which often sees winter hang on strong through March.

With an early spring looking to be a decent possibility, much discussion was centered upon what options farmers have applying fertilizer in early spring.

Fabian Fernandez, a University of Minnesota Extension nutrient management specialist based in St. Paul, said normally in the spring much of the state sees an extremely wet situation and this would be when you lose nitrogen. Denitrification happens when the soil is saturated, and you see water standing in the field.

This may not be a problem in the spring of 2024.

"I suspect that we will not see a lot of potential for loss (this spring), Fernandez said.

Farmers still need to be cautious when applying fertilizer this early in the spring, he said.


Fernandez said anhydrous ammonia would be the preferred choice for a nitrogen source this early in the spring. And then urea would be the next choice followed by some dry sources, but you want to stay away from anything with UAN, considering 25% of that nitrogen is already nitrate.

He has some questions about applying anhydrous in March and whether a nitrogen inhibitor should be applied with the nitrogen fertilizer. Fernandez said if farmers are considering applying anhydrous in mid-March, an inhibitor is probably a good investment.

"I would say yeah this spring if you're planning to go now sometime in mid-March through early April, that would be a situation where you might consider using an inhibitor because it will protect nitrogen longer," he said.

Lindsay Peace, a University of Minnesota Extension nutrient and water management specialist at the Northwest Research and Outreach Center in Crookston, said it is unusual for northwest Minnesota to be able to apply fertilizer before planting. Various research from the Eastern Corn Belt has shown applying nitrogen as close to planting helps to maximize your return on what you are applying.

She agreed with Fernandez about using a nitrogen inhibitor.

"So even though you can be getting out early as Fabian said, use an inhibitor or maybe even still consider waiting a little bit longer just because you want to maximize your return on what you're applying," Peace said.

Brad Carlson, a University of Minnesota Extension educator based in a regional office in Mankato, said farmers have been trending towards applying more nitrogen with a sidedressing application. This application method has become popular, primarily as a tool for hedging against nitrogen loss.

Considering the fact there might not be much nitrogen loss this spring due to limited moisture, it will be interesting to see how much nitrogen is sidedressed this spring.

"This is probably a good year to maybe save some money and skip that sidedressing application and just get all your nitrogen put on pre," Carlson said.


Dan Kaiser, a University of Minnesota Extension nutrient management specialist based in St. Paul, said he has had some calls about applying phosphorus (P) and potash (K) this early springtime frame. He doesn't have much concern with P and K being applied in March.

There shouldn't be any volatility concerns with DAP and MAP being applied this early since it is in the ammonium form, he said.

"The only thing that would concern me with any fertilizer at this point would be getting enough moisture to dissolve it, particularly with P and K," Kaiser said.

Kaiser said he was also asked about the incorporation of P and K in a dry situation. Putting fertilizer on the soil surface does present some risks, he said.

He would recommend tilling the soil to incorporate the applied fertilizer. You want to avoid working the soil in dry conditions but a tillage trip to incorporate fertilizer is still a Best Management Practice (BMP), Kaiser said.


Carlson said there are a lot of conversations occurring about crop budgets right now. One thing he looks at with the accumulated adult farm management records available in Minnesota is fertilizer applications.

In 2022 (the most recent data), the most profitable farms in the state spent on average $198 an acre on fertilizer while the least profitable farms spent $256 an acre. This is a difference of 23%, he said.

Carlson points out the difference in the expenditure on seed in 2022 was only 2% difference.

"I think it's just important to remember if we're looking at decreased profitability in agriculture this year, not spending on unnecessary fertilizer applications is probably one of the things you should be focusing on," Carlson said.

Peace said she would encourage farmers with additional time this spring to do fieldwork to go test their soils, especially if there's any place they are not sure about.

That's probably one of the best and most useful places you can use your time and your money this spring, she said.

Also see "Exercise Caution Over Planting Too Early in 2024" here: https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Russ Quinn can be reached at Russ.Quinn@dtn.com

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Russ Quinn