Renewable Farming

7 ways to shave fertilizer and chemical costs for 2022 corn and beans

For over a decade, we’ve encouraged farmers to transition to biologically based Renewable Farming, or even certified organic, to get resilient against shocks of higher prices or regulatory shocks. Corn and soybean growers who’ve successfully transitioned to organic farming are able to cushion against this season’s explosion of fertilizer and chemical prices. They’re also able to budget cash bids of $9.50 corn and $30 soybeans.

January 19, 2022  By Jerry Carlson  Some experienced organic growers harvested 150- to 180-bu. organic corn in 2021. We asked one Illinois organic farmer, “What’s your gross profit on organic corn and beans, on average?”

He hesitated, then said “Most years, about $1,000 an acre.” (No herbicide cost. No fungicide. Very modest cost for purchased fertilizer. Years of building healthy soil.)

But what can 90% of Midwest growers do this year — those who rely on a regimen of GMO seed, NPK fertilizer, chemical weedkillers and fungicides? 

This season’s fertilizer costs are a pain in the spreadsheet: 10-34-0 starter averages $795 per ton. DAP is about $864, MAP $930, potash $804, urea $913. The old “cheap” nitrogen source, anhydrous ammonia, retails for roughly $1,430 per ton, a record. Our favorite nitrogen source, 28% UAN, is $584 per ton, a record high. Per pound of actual nitrogen, UAN is about $1.05. Urea and anhydrous offer little relief at $1 and $0.88 respectively, per unit of N. 

Those costs put a record premium on gaining as much nitrogen and other nutrients as you can from natural, renewable, biological sources. A full transition to biobased farming takes several seasons, but here are some immediate savings.

We’ll bullet-list the Renewable concepts which we’ve advocated for 30 years; first in LandOwner Newsletter since 1990 and in our Renewable Farming website since 2008.

1. Capture nutrients in crop residue. Even if you couldn’t apply residue-digesting microbes last fall, an early spring could offer a brief window to accelerate nutrient release ahead of the surge of nitrogen uptake.

The selection of inoculants for rapid breakdown of stalk cellulose and lignin into crop nutrients is growing almost every month. The granddaddy blend is AgriEnergy Solutions’ ResiduceOn their website, you can click on AgriEnergy’s product manual and flip through it to read about Residuce. We also market Biodyne USA’s residue digesters, Meltdown and Environoc 501. They’re now manufactured a short drive from us at Fonda, Iowa, in partnership with a new entity, BW Fusion. One of the newest residue treatments, introduced last fall, is Microchop, which uses the concept of enhancing vigor of carbon-hungry bacteria and fungi with water treated with the Pursanova system. 

The University of Michigan estimates that one acre of above-ground stover from a 200-bu. corn crop contains 100 lbs. of N, 50 lbs. of P2O5 and 210 lbs. of K2O. Soybean stubble’s NPK content from a 70-bu. crop may surprise you: 77 lbs. of N, 17 lbs. of P2O5 and 70 lbs. of K2O.

Raw organic matter already incorporated in the soil contains about 5% non-soluble nitrogen, which isn’t immediately usable by your crop. That means each 1% of organic matter in the top 6 inches contains roughly 1,000 lbs. of non-available nitrogen per acre. A Midwest soil rated at 5% organic matter thus contains about 5,000 lbs. of organic nitrogen per acre. It’s available to crop roots only through microbial digestion and mineralization, which encourages managing for active microbial life in the soil. 

For an excellent description of the residue-conversion process in your fields, I recommend this recorded webinar produced by AgriCen, a Texas firm that produces biological and nutrient products for crops. Hosting the the video is Dr. Brian Cornelious, Director of Applied Science for Agricen. The main technical speaker is Dr. Dale Leikam, President of the Fluid Fertilizer Foundation. He describes the potential and the pitfalls of converting crop stover into plant-available nutrients. Agricen also produced a quick-reading PDF describing their residue-digesting product, Accomplish LM.

For a comprehensive overview of methods to manage for soil biological buildup, I encourage you to watch several selections — or all — of the webinar videos just posted by AgriEnergy Solutions at this link. First, you’ll see a PDF page on your screen. Review the segments which interest you most, and click on the icon of that video to open it. Start the video by clicking on the arrow icon.

N uptake by corn. Adapted from Richie,, 2005
(How a Corn Plant Develops)

2. Update your soil tests. My soil sampling tool is a battery-powered Milwaukee drill that drives a 24-inch long wood bit with a 1-inch diameter. You can drill through frozen ground and collect the soil crumbs in a sample bag.

Most labs can now provide a Haney test, an estimate of soil biological activity. That’s helpful to know because a healthy, microbe-rich soil makes mineral nutrients more crop-available. Also, update your homework on Iowa State’s “Late Spring Nitrate Test,” designed to measure readily available nitrate nitrogen when corn is about six inches high. It’s a good way to check for overwinter nitrogen loss. This test presumes you’ll be equipped to Y-drop or stream additional nitrogen close to corn rows as the crop’s nitrogen demands rise quickly. 

3. Apply fertility and biologicals in-furrow. Or 2×2. Or Y-drop. Or streaming. One of our local independent fertilizer dealers, Jim Fettkether of Dunkerton, IA, encourages farmers to apply fertilizer close to the root zone. For years, he has retailed in-furrow systems for planters. “My clients who use in-furrow or 2×2 starter fertilizer stick with it every season,” he says. “That’s especially true of corn-on-corn growers. This season with high fertilizer prices, applying close to the row is really cost-effective.”

Setting up now to spoon-feed row crops through the season also opens the pricing window on fertilizer a little wider. Some analysts expect NPK prices to settle back down significantly later this spring if China opens up fertilizer exports and corn acreage intentions come in lower than expected. Easing of tensions with Russia over Ukraine incursions would also help.

In past years, farmers with thousands of row-crop acres tell us they focus on planting fast, to get germination started at ideal moisture and temperatures. They’re on a mission: Nothing slows down the planter, like stopping to refill in-furrow fertilizer tanks. However, in-furrow nutrients and microbial products can encourage faster, more uniform germination and emergence, especially in cool soil. Possibly, there’s a slight soil warming impact from active microbial metabolism in a seed row, just as composting generates heat. 

In our years of Renewable Farming strip trials, we found that WakeUP Spring enhances yield benefits of in-furrow nutrients. In 2011, Nebraska farmer Arlyn Aldinger told us that adding 3 oz. of WakeUP Spring to his in-furrow blend added 6 bu. to his soybean yields. On a per-acre basis, his blend included 1 gal. of 9-24-3, 1 gal. humate and 6 oz. of a bacillus — all mobilized with 3 oz. of WakeUP Spring. You can download an 8-page PDF report on how to amplify your fertility benefits with WakeUP at this link

Most corn contest winners add nutrients and biologicals as needed, all season long. They know that at about 40% of total corn yield gets added in the final few weeks before black layer. In recent years here in northeast Iowa, we’ve seen many cornfields begin dying by mid-August. Very few cornfields achieve the goal of mature ears hanging down from stalks which remain mostly green until frost hits.

4. Keep tissue testing or sap testing through the season. The concept sounds easy: measuring any deficiencies in growing crop tissue helps you avoid “hidden hunger.” Most deficiencies won’t show up in leaf color until it’s too late to foliar-feed. But we’ve learned that reading tissue tests takes practice and instinct, too. If you have GPS soil maps and yield maps, you can relate tissue-tested deficiencies of trace elements like zinc, manganese or boron to your maps, and foliar-feed just those areas. For years, we’ve used Midwest Labs for tissue tests. Regen Ag Lab in Nebraska is also a capable source of plant analysis. Another favorite testing tool: A probe which tests conductivity. We like to see 500 to 700 microsiemens. 

5. If it’s green, foliar feed it. That’s cringeworthy, but memorable. Most skeptics of foliar feeding have never amplified the effectiveness of foliar-applied nutrients with WakeUP Summer. We have, for over a decade. We learned: It’s what gets into the leaf that makes a difference. That’s what WakeUP Summer does. Click this link to download a PDF version of our PowerPoint presentation, 12 Foliar Feeding Ideas for Extra Yields. Look closely at a couple of slides citing the University of Nebraska’s Dr. Roch Gaussoin, whose research team has done some of the most comprehensive field studies of foliar feeding’s efficiency. 

You don’t need a $250,000 GPS sprayer to apply foliar nutrients and biological crop stimulants. Just good timing, and good instincts based on what you’re seeing and measuring in your growing crop. An old Hagie with a cab and 60-foot boom will work fine. Best time to spray is usually early morning or early evening when it’s cooler and winds are calmer. You don’t have to wait for a custom sprayer, who might show up on a 90-degree day. In 39-in. rows, it’ll allow you to spray test strips of 12 or 24 rows to evaluate foliar products. You’re free to blend your own mixes of foliar nutrients and biologicals. Some co-ops won’t spray what they don’t sell. 

If you spray crops with glyphosate or other contact weedkiller, those chemicals tie up trace elements — so a remedial foliar application of zinc, manganese and possibly boron can be helpful to shorten the yellowing response of crops.

6. “When I go to the field with my sprayer, I have WakeUP in the mix.” That’s a direct quote from one of our longtime WakeUP clients. He uses WakeUP Summer with foliar fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. “Makes everything systemic,” he says. 

7. Browse our Renewable Farming news archive to get more familiar with consultants and companies offering biologically based technologies. We’re seeing new entries in this marketplace every week! 

Call or e-mail us with questions about saving costs or amplifying yields this season!


Update January 21, 2022: Mike Jubinville’s report this morning on MarketsFarm offers some insights:

Fertilizer prices will come down later this year… Some fertilizer experts expect prices to mellow soon, but the question is how much? Josh Linville, Director of Fertilizer with StoneX expects fertilizer prices to come back down in late spring. “We will see a reset. Prices will come down in the summer. We are not going to stay where we are at today…it is not sustainable. But, I don’t think we will see the values (down where) we saw a couple of summers ago in 2020.”

But he says how much will strongly depend on the amount of corn acres US farmers plant this year. “If we get to April 1st expecting 91 million acres of corn and that jumps to something crazy like 94-95 million, all of a sudden that is new demand just before spring that we didn’t plan on and that is a whole different situation.”

And he is also watching trade very closely. “China’s government has put an export block on everything nitrogen and phosphate that is supposed to go through June 2022. Well, if they pull that off early, there’s more tonnes we didn’t expect. But if they expand that out to December for example, now we have lost a lot of tonnes. If Russia invades the Ukraine and this (US) administration steps up and says we are going to shut your economy down, we aren’t letting imports and exports go…Russia is a major exporter of nitrogen, phosphate and potash…so if you remove them from the world scale, that is a big deal.”