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Sunday 4 December 2016

Make sure fertiliser quality is up to scratch

Helen Harris

Published 22/03/2011 | 10:09

Sometime last autumn the phone rang. It was a local sales rep asking us if we wanted to buy some fertiliser, as the price was "definitely going to rocket up in the spring". We looked at our cash flow and asked ourselves if we believed him.

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We have these types of conversations throughout the year. Should we forward sell our grain? Should we forward buy fertiliser? If so, how much?

Tillage farmers are becoming speculators. We are taking a gamble that the price will fall or rise to our advantage. It is a lot more difficult than you would think. When is the right time to buy or sell?

Fertiliser is expensive and if we can save €20/t and we are buying 50t of a compound, that's a saving of €1,000. Not knowing if we were going to be right or wrong, we bought some of our fertiliser last autumn. We put it in the shed and waited until the spring, and when we got the few fine weeks over the past month we started spreading it. Hopefully it's now in the ground helping the plants to tiller and grow.

But this is only part the story of fertiliser -- the next part is the paperwork.

Every time I use the word 'paperwork' to my husband I can see him rolling his eyes up.

He had the same reaction when we pulled out our Nitrates Plan. This is a record we have to keep of all our farm fertiliser details. The principle of it is to protect the water quality by ensuring that farmers don't use more fertiliser and slurry than they need.

We got a Nitrates computer programme from Teagasc and the idea is that you just fill in all your information and it works out what type you can and can't spread, and how much. This is the part of spreading fertiliser that you do when it's raining.

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So as we had the winter months to try and get it started, we had some of it done. We filled in boxes and put in all our soil sample results. The fertiliser that we bought last autumn was opening stock and more recent purchases were added, and if we have any left that then becomes closing stock. So as well as being speculators we have to be accountants.

But the third part of the job is as quality controllers. We have been spreading artificial fertilisers for years and we have seen it all. Most suppliers have good quality fertiliser, but there is a minority that import very poor product. That doesn't always reflect in the price.

This year we bought some ammonia sulphur nitrate that was super to spread. Our tramlines are 24m but it would have gone 30m if we needed it to. But we have had bad quality fertilisers in the past, where it was so lumpy it wouldn't go through the fertiliser spreader. Another time it was so dusty that it wouldn't spread across the 24m. We put down trays across the width of the tramline and drove the length of the field to check if the fertiliser spreader was throwing the full width. In this case, because it was so dusty, it was giving the area behind the tractor too much and further out too little. Our crops would end up with the Meath colours before lodging on us.

Because of the Nitrates plan, it is no longer one compound fits all. Each farmer will have different requirements and different ratios of N, P and K. After doing up our Nitrates plan we have to stick to this and prove with invoices what we bought. However, if we buy fertiliser and it is not what it says it is, what comeback does the farmer have?

We have first-hand accounts of farmers sending back bad-quality fertiliser and having fertiliser tested to check its quality, and the results were quite shocking. We go to the trouble of doing everything right and having all our paperwork correct and then find that what we bought is not what's written on the docket.

And did we save from our forward buying last autumn? Not a lot, but we might have better luck next year.

Helen and Phil Harris are tillage farmers in Co Kildare. Email: helenharrisfarm@gmail.com

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