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Cutting Fertilizer Costs with Effective Irrigation Management

Apr 12, 2023

Cutting Fertilizer Costs with Effective Irrigation Management

When it comes to fertilizer prices, we have good news: as of February 2023, prices are dropping! Growers will likely see benefits as soon as 2024. In the meantime, there are concrete steps you can take to maximize productivity and minimize costs. In addition, this situation is a golden opportunity to adopt more sustainable practices, which may help growers weather difficult conditions and potentially increase ROI.

Chief among these strategies: effective irrigation management. It’s perhaps the most consistently effective way to address fertilizer costs because of the amount of control you can have over it. The right irrigation methods, systems, timing and technology can help growers maximize yields and minimize the need for fertilization. Let’s talk about how to use them.

How to cut costs using effective irrigation management

Choose the right irrigation method

Flood irrigation–the practice of flooding one part of a field and letting water flow to other areas via trenches–is the longest-serving method of irrigation. However, it’s a bit of a blunt instrument. Growers have little control over how water flows, where fertilizer settles and numerous other variables.

These variables pose a risk to ROI in a normal market. With fertilizer prices sky-high, they can pose a serious challenge. Fortunately, pivot irrigation systems offer growers a cost-effective way to fine-tune their use of resources in a way flood irrigation does not.

A center pivot system can distribute water and chemicals with more uniformity (no more over- or under-irrigated sections on your fields). Since furrows aren’t necessary, growers can have multiple crops under one circle, or even rotate close-seeded crops like wheat and alfalfa. And that’s just two advantages out of many.

Then, there’s the option to add variable rate irrigation (or VRI) technology. As the name suggests, VRI varies how much water is used to apply just the right amount, exactly where it’s needed. Zimmatic Precision VRI™, which is fully integrated with FieldNET™ and can be paired with FieldNET Advisor™, is able to calculate exactly how much each pivot should spray, right down to individual sprinkler heads. This increases efficiency, maximizes yield, saves resources and minimizes leaching and runoff. Basically, if flood irrigation is a hammer, VRI is a scalpel.

Schedule irrigation

When you water matters just as much as where that water goes. By scheduling irrigation around conditions such as weather, dryness of soil and where you are in the growing season, you can maximize growth and minimize use of resources. FieldNET Advisor comes in handy here; it analyzes these variables (and more) and provides daily irrigation recommendations that can be implemented at the touch of a button.

Use fertigation

Why do something in two steps if you can do it in one? With fertigation, you spread fertilizer through the irrigation system, instead of doing it separately. This saves time and effort and allows for better targeting with your fertilizers. You get more bang for your fertilizer buck, regardless of current prices.

Implement AI

Today’s irrigation systems aren’t just efficient; they’re smart, too. The increasing availability of sensors (everywhere from on pivots themselves to remote-controlled drones) and tools like FieldNET Advisor give growers advantages that were unthinkable ten years ago.

Growers can already review precise irrigation prescriptions for their crops and use them to guide decisions, and more applications for AI emerge every day. Use the latest tech to optimize use of resources, monitor performance and control your systems remotely.

Monitor soil quality and test soil

Knowing what you need before you start is crucial to any project. And yet, some growers skip testing their soil or forego quality monitoring in order to save money or time. That may sound tempting, but the more you know about your soil health, the better you can tailor your irrigation, saving more in the long run.

It doesn’t have to take a lot of effort, either. Remember FieldNET and FieldNET Advisor? The more data you provide, the better the recommendations will be, allowing you to make the best irrigation choices on a daily basis–all from the comfort of your cab, home or office.

Now that you’ve reviewed how good irrigation management can be for your bottom line, consider supplementing it with these strategies and methods.

Additional strategies for reducing impact of rising prices

Improving fertilizer efficiency

Carefully manage your nitrogen use. Factors such as your application rate can seriously impact your crop yield. For example, if soil is already nutrient-rich, rely on those nutrients for as long as you can. Then, once fertilizer prices drop, replenish the depleted nutrients. If you can’t wait, use your fertilizer judiciously.

In addition to carefully managing how much you use, remember to place your fertilizer as precisely as possible. Advances in soil testing technology, AI and other supportive technologies let growers get the most results from the least amount of fertilizer and to place it with precision.

Finally: only give crops what they need! Give crops just enough fertilizer to keep them growing, then focus on building up nutrients in the soil once fertilizer gets more affordable.

Reduce fertilizer needs

In addition to taking steps to get the most out of your fertilizer, figure out when you truly need it and how to reduce your dependence on it. Consider a few of these sustainable practices from the National Center for Appropriate Technology and precision ag techniques from the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.

When possible, use cover crops in the off season. This isn’t an option for everyone, but it’s a sustainable practice that’ll reduce your dependence on synthetic fertilizers.

Use good old-fashioned manure. Carefully timed and used in conjunction with other techniques, it can significantly improve soil quality. 

Fertilize during cooler months

When the option’s available, fertilize before your crops start growing. If they put down roots in soil that’s already rich in nutrients, they won’t need as much fertilizer during the growing season.

Establish proper practices for fertilizer application

Just as some growers dive into planting without testing their soil, others may use fertilizer without establishing any best practices first. But you don’t need to rush! You (and your crops) deserve to give yourself time to review your resources, equipment, soil quality and available data. That way, you can determine what actions need taking and when it’s best to take them.

Establishing consistent, effective practices for fertilizer before you start using it will leave you better positioned to grow and less stressed about the process!

In the end, careful planning and efficient use of resources don’t just save you money on fertilizer --they also lead to more sustainability. Growers operate under circumstances that change from season to season, month to month or even day to day. Mother nature and a volatile market can sometimes pose a challenge. But with the right equipment and careful planning, we can rise to meet that challenge!

Thanks to effective irrigation management and an ever-expanding suite of tools like FieldNET, growers are more empowered than ever to weather the storms of today and see greater ROI tomorrow. Ready to learn more? Find your nearest dealer and get started!