As most crop/livestock people are reading this, we just passed the halfway mark in the Northeast non-grazing season (grazing season being May – October). Thoughts of spring and managing soil fertility then come to mind – or at least they should.

Crop Comments: Fertilizer commodity updateLet’s look at the classic big three nutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potash (K). Taking N first, let’s prepare to apply it in its cheapest form. Do this when crocuses start popping out of the ground (possibly between stubbornly lingering snowdrifts). The least expensive form of N is delivered by a small dose of medium red clover seed, generally in the amount of 3 – 5 lbs./acre. Spin on seed when the frozen mud assumes a honeycomb configuration, with columns slanting a little steeper than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The seed is effectively covered when morning sun melts these light tan icy fingers. This natural honeycomb phenomenon occurs in late winter or early spring. By the time that clover is knee-high it may have formed 75 – 100 lbs. of N per acre on its N-fixing root nodules. The 5 lbs. of clover may have cost $2 – what a return on investment.

With respect to P and K, let’s sample and test the soils in question before the mad rush of dirt-laden baggies swamps the soil labs. We don’t really need soil test results to determine the clover-centered N dosage. But we do need those results to determine application rates for P and K as well as trace elements.

I like soil labs that run base saturation percentages – the best measure for determining if soil nutrients are out of balance. As a fairly slow-growing cool-season species, this clover lends itself well to under-sowing into winter small grains in early spring. The clover continues growing after small grain crop harvest – combined or baled, to be terminated, preferably by disking – in autumn or the following April or May, before spring planting. In addition to its “skill” at fixing atmospheric N, medium red clover helps suppress weeds.

Lest I sing its praises too loudly, in a slow-warming spring a lot of clover’s promised N may take its sweet time becoming available. This occurrence (or at least likelihood) spotlights the wisdom of applying some of the much more reactive commercial N as reasonable crop insurance. Toward that end, with fertilizer costs being much lower than they were 15 months ago, some of that new-found funding should be spent on soil testing.

Look at it this way: when fertilizer costs are reasonable, growers can afford to test. When they’re expensive – as they were 15 – 24 months ago – growers can’t afford not to test. A sensible “insurance premium” application rate might be 20 – 30 actual lbs. commercial N/acre.

To get a more specific understanding of fertilizer commodity economics, I tap into the wisdom of Jeff Cassim, general manager of Liquid Products, Seneca Falls, NY. Cassim keeps his finger on the pulse of global fertilizer happenings as well as, if not better than, anyone I know in this volatile industry. With his help I selected four of the most popular fertilizer commodities, homing in on their average values per short ton. I compared their Jan. 25 prices to comparable costs on Oct. 10, 2022. Cincinnati-based urea currently costs $383 vs. $640 15 months ago. Urea/ammonium nitrate currently costs $280 vs. $593 15 months ago. Mono-ammonium phosphate currently costs $688 vs. $825 15 months ago. And Vancouver (Canada)-based muriate of potash currently costs $239 vs. $646 15 months ago.

According to one of Cassim’s reliable sources, the global ammonia market is soft to stable. Based on current indicators, the U.S. market will most likely stagnate through the remaining off-season, up until planting time. It is expected that there will be little spot trade and that commitments to second quarter deliveries will remain at current price levels. However, forecasts for a warmer than usual February in the Corn Belt will likely accelerate pre-plant applications, thus beefing up demand for ammonia.

Prospective purchasers of N fertilizers will greatly benefit from much lower natural gas prices compared to 15 – 24 months ago. Here’s a little review explaining why for N-based fertilizers – the largest ingredient grouping. The process starts by mixing N from the air with hydrogen from natural gas at high temperature and pressure to create ammonia. Approximately 60% of the natural gas is used as raw material, with the remainder employed to power the synthesis process.

Flash back two-plus years ago when the Ukraine War and the COVID pandemic were both kicking into high gear. At that time, natural gas in Europe cost so much that N fertilizer manufacturers on that continent imported comparatively much cheaper natural gas from the U.S. Directly, or indirectly, natural gas is involved in the manufacture of ammonia, urea, their combination, ammonium nitrate, mono-ammonium phosphate, di-ammonium phosphate and mono-ammonium sulfate. Only the potash sources were fairly immune to natural gas market pressures.

Speaking of natural gas, on Jan. 25, that commodity’s futures prices on U.S. public trading fell some following forecasts for above normal temperatures. That, despite a government report showing massive draw-down from gas storage. The weather outlook showed an increase in expected heating demand but continued to predict a warmer-than-normal U.S. weather pattern through mid-February.

Mid-January’s extreme cold weather, reaching much farther south than normal, resulted in the largest withdrawal from gas storage in about three years. Frigid temperatures caused gas demand for heating to spike while curbing output from key natural gas-producing states like Texas and Louisiana. However, high inventories are helping keep a lid on natural gas prices by mitigating spikes in demand or supply shortfalls.

The Energy Information Administration expects high inventories to limit natural gas price gains this year, despite increases in U.S. liquid natural gas exports and slightly reduced production of this fuel. These factors of a less volatile supply/demand scenario for natural gas are imparting an aura of stability to the otherwise seesaw arena of feeding crops.