Helen Harris: I can't understand the huge jump in price of fertilisers

Grain farmer Helen Harris on her farm in Co Kildare
Grain farmer Helen Harris on her farm in Co Kildare
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Helen Harris

Helen Harris

With the wintry weather, we have plenty of time to get our Nitrates Plan finished and soil samples out. We need to study them for the upcoming season to see what's needed where.

As we are taking fertility from the land, in the form of grain and straw, we are very aware that we also need to give back to the soil.

We have tried to increase the fertility year on year. According to the Department of Agriculture, our soil samples used to be valid for five years, now that is back to four, and the size of sample has reduced from eight to five hectares per sample.

Even with this as our guideline, we prefer to do more. How else are you going to see how the soil is changing? We soil sampled the whole farm last year, but to see what the pH is now and a quick overview, we take random samples across the farm to see what direction it is going.

In general, our pH is quite high, from about 6.6 to 7.8. This works well for tillage, and if we find that our pH is getting any higher, we will use Urea rather that CAN to help bring it down slightly.

It's much easier to bring up the pH with lime than bring it down. This year, we also have to include some of the fertiliser value of the chicken litter that we spread last year.

This could be a tricky one, as we had a drought during the summer and I wonder how much of the chicken litter was taken up and if it wasn't, will it be available this year? Have we lost it or is it there for this year's crop?

The winter barley is starting to go slightly yellow, although most of the crops have come through the winter looking remarkably well and thick. When should we go out this year with the fertiliser?

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Should we go earlier than normal, considering how advanced and thick it looks or should we wait?

Will the chicken litter give us a slightly longer window, as we should have some left over from last year? Or if we go early, will it be wasted as the plant may not take it up if the weather turns cold?

The other major factor for us to consider when applying fertiliser is that this year, we didn't chop and incorporate the straw. We baled and removed it all. The P value of winter wheat straw is about 4.4kg per ha and winter barley straw is 4kg per ha.

The K value of wheaten straw is about 56kg per ha and 51kg per ha for winter barley (Teagasc). As we took this from the soil this year, we need to compensate for this and take it into account when doing our nitrates plan.

But by far the single biggest factor this year has turned out to be the cost, with compounds going up as much as €20 per tonne and nitrogen over €50 per tonne. I can't for the life of me understand why the huge jump in price. The cost of the raw material, natural gas, has fallen since last year, so why the increase? Is it just because they can?

It is also a good time to look at alternatives, especially of organic manures. It is getting more and more obvious that we need to feed the bugs and bacteria as well as the crops. This is where the green manures and mushroom compost come in. Although there is still some debate about their fertiliser value, they are without doubt very valuable soil conditioners, which has a value, too.

It will be interesting to see how the long-term use of chicken litter and min-till will effect the soil. I felt that both definitely helped the winter crops during the drought last year. Would it do the same if it was a wet year? Should we be looking at no till for the future?

Philip and Helen Harris are tillage farmers in Co Kildare. Follow them on Twitter P&H Harris @kildarefarmer

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