‘September and most of October have seen favourable field conditions for fall fertilizer application throughout the province, with most cereal and oilseed producers having competed harvest,’ says Ryan Furtas, market analyst with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
‘The past few wet years have played havoc with the traditional practices of fall nitrogen fertilization. However, since mid summer Alberta soils have been relatively dry, allowing for a small window of application post harvest.’
He says that advantages of a fall application includes reducing spring workload and better pricing as fall fertilizer prices can reflect slower demand than in the spring.
‘If a producer is certain of their cropping plans, applying all the required nitrogen can be an option. However, a more modified approach may be needed due to potential over winter losses or prolonged wet spring soil conditions. A producer may then consider applying less than the full rate of nitrogen in the fall and applying additional nitrogen in the spring during seeding.’
Nitrogen is the most common fall applied and the largest volume applied fertilizer in the province.
‘That makes it the most expensive nutrient for Alberta producers,’ he adds. ‘Phosphorus and potassium are typically placed with the seed, so there is no advantage to applying these fertilizer products in the fall.’
The most common fall method to apply nitrogen is to band either urea (46-0-0) or anhydrous ammonia (NH3) (82-0-0) to cool soils – less than 10°C.
Benefits of fall applications
Table 1. Alberta annual average per pound price average of urea and NH3 versus fall months (September and October) per pound price of urea and NH3
‘As Table 1 points out, over the past 5 years and on paper, there is not necessarily a glaring economic advantage to applying fall fertilizer, even though one cent per pound savings can add up to substantial savings,’ explains Furtas.
‘For example, applying 50 pounds of nitrogen on 1,000 acres can result in $500 savings at just a one cent less in price. Regardless of the size of the operation, a small savings can certainly help with keeping the variable costs down.’
He says that if fall application is not possible, farmers can still protect themselves from potentially higher spring prices. They can either price average nitrogen sales throughout the year, take physical delivery of urea and store it in fertilizer bins, or they can pre-book NH3 throughout the year.
‘The biggest management impact of fall applied nitrogen is the dramatically improved efficiency of seeding operations. Shifting growing season workload from the spring to the fall saves a producers on many fronts, but most notably it keeps the planter moving by reducing filling stops.’
Figure 1. Alberta nitrogen price per pound – Urea vs NH3
‘Figure 1 illustrates the price per pound of urea and NH3 in Alberta over the last 5 years,’ he explains. ‘The price chart shows nitrogen product prices staying rather flat over the past few months at just under the 50 cents per pound mark. What’s more interesting is that the price between the 2 most popular fertilizers have been rather stable since the spring of 2020, with NH3 staying within 2 cents or 3 cents of urea.’
With this important nutrient selling in the lower half of the 5-year price trend, Furtas says that growers who will need to stock up for 2021 should be asking their retail dealers what they can lock in for spring pricing or even take delivery over the winter months.
‘It may be that only a small amount of nitrogen ends up applied this fall, considering recent weather conditions. Stronger crop prices globally in fall 2020 may increase nitrogen demand and put upward pressure on price.’
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