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Liquid fertilizer and melting urea

Patrick Fabian found a new way to stretch his fertilizer dollar further
 and take his fertility management to the next level

Every so often, while we’re trying to solve one problem, we stumble across something else that turns out to be a huge benefit to a bigger picture issue. That was my experience with liquid fertilizer and melting urea.

My seeding equipment consists of a 30-foot set of John Deere 9450 hoe drills. Up to this point we could only apply dry product in the seed row. We had to be careful how much granular fertilizer we applied, as the extremely high salt content burned the seed, especially in soybeans.

This meant either applying the extra product with a spin-spreader (when one was available to rent), or figuring out some way I could band it in, as I don’t have the equipment to do that.

In 2009 my eyes were opened as to how much money I was wasting with this process. We had just finished spreading a $119-acre fertilizer blend, and were ready to seed the next morning. That night it started raining. The field didn’t dry up until weeks later when it was too late to plant a crop. Next spring’s soil tests showed virtually zero nutrients remaining. They either volatilized into the air, leached down past the root zone or got tied up in my high calcareous/high pH soil. So much for the concept of “building fertility levels in your soil.”

Switching to liquid?

Frustrated, I began to look for another way to fix my situation. We could have seeded that field if I hadn’t been delayed by two days waiting to get a spreader.

I looked at using liquid fertilizer, but it just seemed too cumbersome to switch over and all the fertilizer experts on the speaking circuit were downplaying the liquid products, citing “too expensive,” “hard to handle,” “special equipment needed,” and even “snake oil.”

Yet the more I looked, the more liquid fertilizer seemed to satisfy what I was looking to do. In soybeans, for example, every pound of granular phosphorus laid down in the seed row reduced the plant stand by 0.5 per cent. That meant 20 pounds of phosphours would wipe out 10 per cent of my plant stand.

Liquid phosphorus in the form of 6-22-2 wasn’t like that. I could apply all I wanted into the seed row, and it was still seed-safe because of the extremely low salt index.

With nitrogen, we’ve been taught all these years that “more is better” to the point of having nitrogen toxicity in the root zone. But if I was to switch over to liquid, how would I address the huge amounts of nitrogen that my fertilizer dealer was insisting needed to be placed in front of the seed? It seemed that one solution only created yet another problem.

Then I stumbled across some research that permanently changed my mindset and my thinking about fertility.

Research trials

There were some scientifically replicated trials done over a three year period by Dr. Bill Hamman that showed that foliar applied melted urea had a 4.2:1 efficiency factor as opposed to soil applied. In other words, if I applied 10 pounds of actual nitrogen as a foliar application it had the same effect on the plant as 42 pounds dropped into the ground!

This had my attention, immediately. Think of the cost savings with just that alone!

Digging further, I found that University of California, Davis also did replicated trials and found that phosphorus intake efficiencies were even higher than for nitrogen, to the tune of 20:1! Why hadn’t this research been done years ago in Western Canada?

The problem was that back a number of years ago, most farms didn’t have sophisticated high clearance sprayers for this type of application, and liquid kits for cultivators and drills were very basic and crude at best. Now, more and more farms have high clearance rigs, either self-propelled or pull-type, so that has been addressed. Liquid kits for drills are also gaining rapid popularity as they not only are relatively simple to install, but are accurate. One liquid phosphorus company will even sell the kit to you and credit you back on the product you apply over the next two years, virtually making the entire kit cost-free to the farmer.

Homemade remedy

Now, how do I deal with getting liquid nitrogen, as it is nowhere near as common as dry 46-0-0? The answer is simple — make it at home! I did, and continue to do so.

With some help from Leo Lutz, Northern Alberta district sales manager with Alpine Plant Foods Corporation, I was given the recipe for melting dry 46-0-0 into a liquid form, which could be applied as a foliar to utilize the above efficiency numbers.

What was required for the process was quite basic: a cone bottom tank, a pump and an auger. That’s it.

The formula was simple as well: 675 gallons of water and two metric tonnes of 46-0-0 produced 1,000 gallons of 18-0-0. That was enough to do 200 acres with a 42 pounds per acre nitrogen equivalency. The entire process was not only simple but took less than a half hour to complete. My son and I even did up a video to chronicle the events of our first attempt — find it at

Fertility management

One thing we realized with this new system is how it moved us to a whole new level in fertility management.

In the past, when we were dealing with dry fertilizer, it always frustrated me that we could never adequately address the issue of micronutrients due to the inability to apply 1.5 lbs. (a little over a handful) across 43,560 square feet where every plant would get it.

Most times, we were encouraged to “forget about the micros and just apply more nitrogen, because that is where you will see the difference.” So much for balanced fertility.

Using liquid makes a major difference. Now, when we know we are chronically deficient with a micronutrient in our field we can very easily address the problem by applying it right in the seed row as a liquid with our melted urea and liquid phosphorus. Every seed gets it, not just the chosen few.

If it turns out after taking a tissue test, we are still deficient in an element, we can easily apply it as a foliar by using a chelated micronutrient, in conjunction with the 6-22-2 liquid phosphorus as a carrier. This is done to facilitate the absorption of the micro, as by itself it may not be taken in by the plant. Our experience with liquid fertilizer is showing us that by balancing our nutrient requirements we can begin to reduce the amount of nitrogen we have been conditioned to put on in the past, without sacrificing yield, yet eliminating the buildup of an almost toxic band in the soil from all the front-end loaded nitrogen.

While everything we have is grown under irrigation, this technique would have an absolutely perfect fit in a dryland situation. Rather than front-end load all your fertilizer hoping for lots of moisture, put some down with the seed. Then, if it is turning out to be a dry year you look like a genius to your banker because you haven’t gone overboard with inputs. If, however it looks like you are going to have a decent year moisture-wise, go out and foliar apply another shot of fertilizer. You will still look like a genius in your banker’s eyes, and you’ll probably sleep better at night as well!

If this concept interests you I would recommend seeking the advice of a knowledgeable agronomist who comprehends this type of a fertility regime. I have met many who tell me it can’t be done or I can’t do this for a host of reasons. The biggest reason usually is that they aren’t comfortable with the concept — they don’t understand it because they weren’t schooled that way.

I certainly didn’t embark on this on my own knowledge alone. I sought out someone who was familiar with the concept to guide me, and now rely on the expertise of Gerald Anderson, an Agri-Trend agri-coach, to ensure that what I am doing is correct. He has clients who have been doing this successfully for over eight years.

Sometimes it’s scary thinking outside the box and even more so to act on your thoughts. But if it enhances profitability, it might be worth a closer look.

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