Early Nitrogen – to spread or not to spread?

The, by now predictable, late January advice for grassland farmers around Nitrogen has been in circulation for a couple of weeks.

‘You must spread Nitrogen on your farm immediately’ etc. Ironically, while farmers digest this advice they are battling with sub zero temperatures on most nights.

Many parts of the country have been looking at snow covered fields for a lot of the past two or three weeks. Many farmers are rightly wondering what is the economic response – if any – to spreading Nitrogen in these conditions?

They are struggling to reconcile ‘one size fits all’ fertiliser recommendations with the wintry conditions. We must also consider the environmental impact of spreading Nitrogen in these conditions. What is the environmental impact?

In frost free coastal areas, for example, soil temperatures may well be at or above the required 6 degrees figure and set to rise further with increasing day length (though this week’s forecast suggests otherwise). Perhaps a blanket spread of Nitrogen will deliver an economic response in these areas, but what about the rest of us?

On our farm in Roscommon we have been measuring grass for 18 years. For the first 15 of those we would always have spread Urea in mid January. I now realise that – in many of those years – it was probably a waste of money.

In three of the 18 years, we grew 10kg/day in February. In six of them we grew zero. On average, we grew 5kg/day. These days we prefer to wait until soil temp is at, or about to be at, 6 degrees, together with a decent forecast for the following number of days. In practice we now don’t spread until mid or late February.

In the meantime, we will focus on getting 20-25% of the farm grazed tightly in February, putting it in a good ‘growing state’ to take advantage of applied Urea and rising temperatures through March.

Risk management skills are rapidly becoming as important to a dairy farmer as financial and grassland management skills. Fertiliser is very expensive this year relative to milk price.

Many dairy farmers also have uncertain cash flow issues over the coming months regarding possible super levy and tax bills. Can they afford to follow the ‘you must spread N now’ diktat when the returns for doing so in the current conditions are so uncertain?

Each farmer must assess the risks for themselves. I would suggest consulting experienced grassland farmers in your locality or discussion group. Seek their views about the suitability or otherwise of spreading early Nitrogen.

While every precaution must be taken to minimise risk to your pocket and your environment, don’t become like the majority and leave the fertiliser in the bag until the first sunny day in April.

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