For Release November 6, 2005
by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent
The price of fertilizer went right on up with the price of petroleum. There's a good reason for that as most nitrogen fertilizer starts as natural gas. Nitrogen fertilizer rates are going through the roof and dragging the other nutrients along with it. It's going to affect everything from lawn fertilization costs to the costs of production in our fields. But the fact still remains that if you want to have a productive stand of bromegrass you have to fertilize it with the right amount at the right time.
Timing is very critical in optimizing yield and quality. Unfortunately, I think we often miss the ideal time to fertilize because we are busy wrapping up fall harvest and finishing that last little bit of wheat planting. Some years you can fertilize brome almost anytime from September to March and obtain good response. But in long term studies the most consistent response and highest yield came from fertilizing bromegrass in November and early December.
Unfortunately, I see a lot of bromegrass being fertilized in February and even March. While this will often bring a noticeable response from the bromegrass, the yields are often as much as one half to three quarters of a ton less than a November fertilization. An added benefit of a November fertilization is that if you do have a bindweed problem you can usually still effectively treat bindweed at that time.
The big question on every producer's mind, though, is, "how little fertilizer can I get by on?" Fertilizer is like gold right now and we don't want to have to apply any more than we have to. That is very understandable, but we have to keep in mind that sometimes the most expensive hay we can produce is the one where we applied no, or very little, fertilizer. So you can save money in the short run, by not fertilizing, or you can spend some money now, and end up with hay that costs less per ton.
Let's look at some real world analysis. If you don't fertilize bromegrass at all, you will probably get about one ton per acre. All of those fixed costs for land, taxes, machinery depreciation, etc. are going to get dumped on that one ton of hay. But let's go ahead and spend the money to put on say 100 to 120 pounds of nitrogen, 40 pounds of phosphorus and maybe 10 pounds of sulfur. Yes, you have more costs up front, perhaps as much as $60 per acre. Put that $60 of extra cost will boost your production from one ton to three and a half tons. Then you also have that many more tons to spread all your fixed costs over. Suddenly your cost of hay drops by $20 to $25 per ton. You have cheaper feed and more of it!
However, you have to follow through on the management of that entire crop. To take advantage of your fertilizer applications, you also have to time your harvesting for peak nutritional quality late next spring. Brome hay is consistently being cut too late to obtain the desired quality. Many producers think they are putting up 12% protein hay, but when we test it, we find it is often only 7% to 8% crude protein. We recommend that bromegrass be in early bloom when harvested. But most of the bromegrass I see being cut is into seed production by the time it is actually swathed. When you see those first heads showing up, the swather should be moving.
Bromegrass can be very productive and produce high quality hay. But you have to manage it so that the right fertilizer goes on at the right time and then harvested in the early reproductive period. You can do it, you just have to plan for it!
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