Nutrients that can be applied to the soils (with or without winter forages) include mined and/or unrefined amendments, such as ground limestone, rock phosphates, bone meal and some forms of potash. The items are feeding the soil rather than feeding growing plants directly.

Crop Comments: Let’s put cold weather to work in the fieldThey also benefit greatly from the freezing/thawing action of northern soils during winter. This freezing/thawing seesaw behavior serves to make otherwise bound-up nutrients become more available to crops come spring. Compliments of Jack Frost, this benefit of enhanced soil nutrient availability shows that money spent this autumn on these inputs can be expected to show a handsome return on investment at harvest time next growing season.

This freezing/thawing action has been shown to increase the effective neutralizing value (ENV) of ground limestone, breaking bigger limestone granules into smaller, more biologically active particles. Let me quote a bulletin from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture: “ENV is the fraction of the material’s calcium carbonate equivalent (CCE) that will react with soil acidity in the first year of application. The ENV is calculated by multiplying the material’s CCE and its fineness. The CCE analysis consists of determining the combined total of calcium/magnesium carbonate and oxide contained in an ag lime. CCE is expressed as a percentage of 100% pure calcium carbonate. Pure calcium carbonate is the standard by which all ag-lime chemical purity is compared.”

There’s a punch line to the joke here – if we can agree that the assistance from Jack Frost helps increase the ENV of liming materials. This would mean that in terms of supporting next year’s crops, we can likely make out okay by applying less lime this autumn than what would actually be required with a spring 2024 application. Another plus would be that, as I write, field conditions in the Northeast are generally pretty passable, so that I’ve been able to take quite a few soil samples locally in the last few weeks.

Who knows what field conditions will be next spring? We’re certain that liming materials improve the utilization of fertilizer ingredients, particularly phosphorus and nitrogen. Then combine that certainty with the uncertainty associated with global fertilizer ingredient price volatility. We can conclude that using one input whose price has increased less than 30% in the last three years (lime), to maximize the utilization efficiency of inputs whose costs have doubled (P and N) in that same time frame, qualifies as a no-brainer.

That being said, fertilizer ingredient commodities “have been flat for while,” as recently described to me by Jeff Cassim, marketing director for Liquid Products (based in Seneca Falls, NY). Cassim keeps his finger on the pulse of the fertilizer industry locally and globally. He routinely sends me timely bulletins, explaining the ins and out of the fertilizer business.

When crafting a fertilizer recommendation, I pay close attention to the micronutrients (trace elements) as well as the “macros,” all documented with soil test results. But grappling with the bigger picture – and for the moment ignoring the “traces” – we can get a good handle on the market dynamic of the four soil macro-nutrients (N, P, K and S).

I grasp this “handle” by examining the cost elements of 10 different commodity ingredients. They are urea, urea/ammonium nitrate, ammonium nitrate, ammonium sulfate, ammonia, di-ammonium phosphate (DAP), mono-ammonium phosphate (DAP), muriate of potash and sulfur. Although I’m right now examining a chart compiled from Cassim’s data, showing dollars per ton costs and percentages of price change, I’ve opted to figure an average percentage decrease for all 10 commodity ingredients.

In making these comparisons, I used Nov. 13, 2022 as a starting point and Nov. 13, 2023 as the finish line. On average, the 10 ingredients’ prices decreased 35.54% over the 12-month period being evaluated. The most typical cost changes were evidenced by three ingredients, almost tying: urea’s short ton price dropped from $527.50 to $342.50 (35.1% drop); muriate of potash’s short ton price decreased from $535 to $345 (35.5% drop); and sulfate of potash’s short ton price dropped from $1,000 to $650 (35% drop).

Shying away, just a little bit, from all these commercial fertilizer inputs, let’s recall the economics and mechanics of liquid manure, for those who have that capability. Until snow accumulation dictates otherwise, rolling-coulter injection of manure into triticale in November and December can meet the winter forage’s spring N needs. Just make sure that total N, from all sources, doesn’t exceed 50 lbs./acre on lanky, lodging-prone rye. However, up to 70 lbs./acre is okay on triticale and wheat.

I learned from Cassim that Russia had started dumping major quantities of their finished phosphate fertilizers (MAP and DAP) on global markets at way below production costs. The U.S. Department of Commerce countered by placing a 20% tariff on all Russian fertilizers. We’ll see how that plays out.

Flashing back to Cassim’s mention of “flat for a while,” I wonder if things are a little too quiet, while pondering the fertilizer industry’s tumult just two years ago. What if commodity grain prices take off again and spur an accompanying increase in soil amendment prices?

Cassim and I advise growers to use their most recent soil test data, figure out what they need for fertilizer, then, right away, commit for half – or whatever proportion they’re comfortable with – of what’s needed, locking in prices from suppliers. As spring gets closer, commit for the remainder of what’s needed to feed a crop, wherever that price lands. That early commitment is what some economists refer to as a hedge.