Invest in 2013 forage crops with fertilizers like nitrogen

Forage producers who want more in 2013 need to invest with fertilizer.

A popular television commercial has a young elementary student sitting around a classroom table proclaiming “we want more, we want more, we want more!” Those words certainly fit the U.S. forage industry for 2013. With strong meat prices and improving milk prices, the animal industry that feeds forages can foresee profit potential, but only if they manage their feed costs. Because of the 2012 drought and declining hay acres across the country, the supply of hay and other forages going into 2013 are at their lowest levels since the 1950’s. As a result, the corresponding prices for these forages are at all-time highs. Whether you are feeding the forage you produce or are selling hay as a cash crop it will pay to increase yields in 2013.

One springtime practice that many livestock and dairy producers should consider in 2013 is to top-dress fertilizer applications to more pasture and hay fields. Because of tight economics, many livestock farms were not fertilizing hay and pasture fields in the past few years, and some dairy farm were not covering their older grassy stands with nutrients either. In many situations it just did not pay to fertilize. Instead, it was cheaper to buy the hay if they ran short.

As a Michigan State University Extension educator, I recommend that farms rethink their fertilization program in 2013 due to the high hay prices. If extra forage will be needed, it appears it will be more economical to raise it than to purchase it in this upcoming year. Many farms in the Midwest have now received substantial moisture. Soil conditions look favorable for a return to more normal hay and pasture yields during the most productive part of the forage growing season – May and June. Proper fertilization can improve that yield even more and start to catch the forage supply back up on many farms.

Soil testing is the key to ensure that you return these soil levels to optimum fertility without over applying. These fertilizer nutrients are still expensive and can be detrimental to the environment when over applied. Farmers should not guess with fertilizer applications as the cost can easily run $50 - $100 per acre.

Fourteen years of research at Michigan State University shows that on grassy pastures and grassy hay fields, the addition of nitrogen at the proper time can increase forage yields by 2 - 4 tons per acre if all other nutrients are adequate. With today’s economics, for every pound of nitrogen applied, which can be valued at $0.58, there can be from 25 to 50 lbs. of 18 percent moisture hay equivalent forage produced. If that hay is valued at $140 per ton it means you are realizing an extra $1.75 - $3.50 of hay for every $0.58 of nitrogen fertilizer applied. Granted, this is pricing the forage at the value of hay and there are extra costs involved to get the forage to a hay package, but it can be argued that if you are already driving the field harvesting the acres anyway the cost is not too much more whether you are harvesting 1.5 or 2.5 tons per acre. It’s important to note that there is a risk involved when applying fertilizer because if it does not rain, these potential yields will be reduced. However, the MSU trials mentioned above do include drought and dry years in that fourteen years of data and the yield averages mentioned show favorable results.

By all indications, it appears that investing fertilizer nutrients in pasture and hay fields can return dividends in 2013. The first step is to take a representative soil test. For more information, contact me, Jerry Lindquist, MSU Extension grazing and field crop educator at or at 231-832-6139.

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