Top Crop Manager

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Anhydrous ammonia the most economic N source

NH3 - a cost effective and efficient source of nitrogen.

November 27, 2007  By Top Crop Manager

In a year when fertilizer prices are expected to reach new heights, growers
will have to think economically about their fertilizer choices. Experts agree
that growers can gain the best return on their fertilizer by investing in a
cost effective and efficient form of nitrogen.

When using NH3, growers and retailers have
to be diligent in following safe handling and application procedures.

In 2006, growers may want to consider using anhydrous ammonia (NH3)
– a typically lower cost source of nitrogen. "Anhydrous ammonia is
a viable nitrogen source that can be readily adapted to a direct seeding or
one pass tillage system," says Richard Lussier, Grande Prairie based, agronomic
crop enhancement specialist with Agricore United. "It provides growers
with a timely, effective and efficient nutrient source."

Ammonia provides the most actual nitrogen
Agronomically, Lussier and John Heard, soil fertility specialist with Manitoba
Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, both report that a pound of nitrogen
is a pound of nitrogen. "Once in the soil, and converted to nitrate, nitrogen
fertilizers act similarly," explains Heard.


The cost per tonne is where NH3 provides a price advantage
for growers. "When you look at current pricing, NH3
is about five to six cents per actual pound of nitrogen less expensive than
other nitrogen forms such as urea," says Lussier.

Heard reports a survey of nitrogen prices in Manitoba between 2000 and 2004
found the average price of NH3 was 27 cents per pound
of nitrogen (cents/lb N), where urea was 33 cents/lb N, ammonium nitrate was
43 cents/lb N and UAN was 35 cents/lb N.

Combined with its lower cost, NH3 also provides growers
with the greatest actual nitrogen per tonne of fertilizer. Compared to urea
(46 percent N), NH3 (82 percent N) covers 1.78 more acres
per tonne of fertilizer. Compared to UAN (28 percent N), NH3
allows growers to cover 2.93 times more acres per tonne of fertilizer.

This higher nitrogen content per tonne of NH3 means
increased convenience and efficiencies at planting. "Because of the nature
of the fertilizer, not only will growers have less to handle, making them more
efficient at planting, but they will also have the added convenience of NH3
being delivered directly to their field," explains Lussier. "This
will reduce growers' need for extra infrastructure such as trucks and augers,
will help reduce wear and tear on equipment and also help reduce fuel costs
related to transportation over the long-term."

Think safety when handling ammonia
NH3 is a cost efficient and effective source of
nitrogen fertilizer. But like many tools of the farming trade, growers
and retailers have to be diligent in following safe handling and application
procedures. Al Eleniak, anhydrous ammonia plant and equipment manager
for Agricore United, provides the following safety tips for growers and

  • Obtain or update certification by attending a supplier hosted NH3
    grower safety meeting.
  • Always wear full body protective clothing, rubber gloves and a full
    face-respirator with ammonia cartridges.
  • Ensure close and easy access to fresh water to flood skin or eyes
    in case of exposure.
  • Emergency contact information should also always be within reach.
  • Ensure all equipment is inspected prior to use by checking for properly
    functioning valves, breakaway couplers and ensuring all high-pressure
    hoses are free of cracks or wear.
  • Never assume all the pressure has been released from hoses when working
    around equipment or when connecting or disconnecting hoses.
  • Be diligent around tanks and equipment to check for wear and tear
    as well as possible tampering related to theft.

Ammonia economical option for all operations
NH3 has a universal fit in all cropping systems whether
under direct seeding or tillage. "The price incentive of NH3
is enough to encourage growers to make their own innovations to tillage equipment
to be able to use NH3," says Heard. "In Manitoba
it is commonly used on both direct-seeded and tilled acres." Growers can
use standard cultivation equipment outfitted with ammonia knives. In direct
seeding, they have access to several application options such as mid-row banding,
side-banding and sweep wing-tip application.

Lussier adds that while there are costs associated with outfitting a system
to apply NH3, purchasing or renting an ammonia tank and
investing in a manifold and distribution system for the cultivator or air-drill,
the savings are much greater. "For an average sized farm of 2000 acres,
switching from urea to anhydrous ammonia will save growers anywhere from four
to five dollars per acre annually," says Lussier.

Crop planning helps achieve best return on ammonia

Choosing the most cost effective source of nitrogen fertilizer is one step in
achieving the best return on investment. Growers should also regularly soil
test, consider application timing and crop rotation. "Soil testing is key
to determining what nutrients are needed to avoid over or under-applying,"
says Heard. "It's also important to help growers keep track of other nutrient
levels in the soil such as phosphorus and potassium, which may have been reduced
or cut from fertilizer blends to help cover nitrogen costs."

Application timing plays a significant role in fertilizer efficiency and return
on investment. "Applying nitrogen in the spring, as close to the crop need
as possible, is the most effective and efficient application timing," says
Heard. Spring applications, however, are not always the most practical.

Of all the nitrogen sources, Lussier notes that anhydrous ammonia and urea
are the best suited for fall applications because they are in the ammonium form
and have to be converted to nitrate before plant use or losses can occur. In
terms of fall fertilization, Lussier reports that research from the University
of Manitoba indicates that the affect of soil temperature may not be as critical
as originally thought. The critical factor is the ability of the soil to drain.
Fall banding can begin in September on well-drained land, while growers with
soils prone to saturation or ponding in the spring should delay fall fertilizer
applications until soils have cooled to below 10 degrees C.

NH3 has a universal fit in all cropping systems
whether under direct seeding or tillage.

A well planned crop rotation can also improve nitrogen efficiency by allowing
growers to make effective use of nitrogen credits from legumes, pulses, green
manure or livestock manure. Planning a rotation to fit highly productive crops
with the most productive fields will help generate maximum yields for a nitrogen
investment. "In Manitoba, soil testing may also uncover some nitrogen credits
on land that was fallowed last year, providing growers with an opportunity to
reduce fertilizer needs on certain fields this spring," says Heard. -30-

Maximize returns with strategic input decisions
Nitrogen is the key nutrient responsible for building crop yield
and the grower's bottom line. Manitoba Agriculture strongly suggests growers
consider the following ways to help maximize crop returns before cutting their
nitrogen rates as a cost cutting measure.

  • Determine available nitrogen credits and needs.
  • Soil test.
  • Determine in-field nitrogen variability.
  • Consider nitrogen credits from forage legumes, pulse crops, row crops, green
    manure or unharvested crops and previously applied manure.
  • Establish realistic target yields.
  • Reduce cost of other inputs to make funds available for nitrogen.
  • Reduce seeding rates if seedbed conditions are ideal and seeding is early.
  • Apply crop protection products based on Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
    rather than insurance applications.
  • Combine tillage, fertilization and seeding where possible to reduce passes.
  • Spend less on nitrogen without shaving rates.
  • Use the least expensive nitrogen source.
  • Spread out pricing risk by purchasing throughout the year.
  • Consider the difference in nitrogen application costs between various application
  • Apply nitrogen in the most efficient placement – banding.
  • Apply nitrogen as close to crop need as possible – at seeding.
  • Grow low or no nitrogen requiring crops that fit the growing region and
  • Reduce nitrogen rates when seeding is delayed – yield potential is
    reduced so less nitrogen is required.


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