High Fertilizer Prices? Using Crop Removal P & K Rates is an Expensive Choice

This article originally appeared in the AGVISE Laboratories Spring 2023 Newsletter

If you thought high fertilizer prices would resolve after one or two years, it is looking like those prices are becoming the new norm. At such prices, every fertilizer dollar you spend must be spent to guarantee the best bang for each buck. This means soil testing makes more dollars and sense than ever.

Phosphorus and potassium are best managed with current soil test information to maximize crop yield potential and profitability. Yet, some people continue to apply phosphorus and potassium at crop removal (CR) rates as a way to maintain the soil fertility status quo. This is a major oversight because CR-based rates maintain soil fertility in a way that overapplies fertilizer to parts of the field with high soil test P or K that do not need more fertilizer, yet underapplies fertilizer to parts with low soil test P or K and ultimately sacrifices crop yield. This is particularly troublesome if the factor that limited crop yield was one of those nutrients! As a result, the reduced crop yield leads to a lower CR-based fertilizer rate that fails to fix the soil fertility issue, and you stay in a low soil fertility rut. For example, if soil test P is very low and limits crop yield, a crop removal-based P rate will undershoot the actual crop P requirement, resulting in reduced crop yield and continued nutrient mining year after year. A soil test-based P rate will show you exactly where more fertilizer is required to maximize crop yield and where you can reduce fertilizer rates to maximize profitability.

Another serious reason to avoid CR-based rates is the risk of off-site nutrient losses, especially phosphorus. When CR-based rates are applied on soils with high or very high soil test P, this increases the risk for environmental P loss to waterways that can degrade water quality and result in regulatory oversight. Precision soil sampling (grid or zone) and soil test-based fertilizer rates is the best way to maximize crop yield, profitability, and protect the environment.