There always seems to be something that farmers have to be worrying or fearful of and this year, that is skyrocketing fertiliser prices.

Despite the cost of fertiliser, farmers – particularly those involved in dairy – seem to be, from what I’ve seen so far, the ones purchasing fertiliser.

With the way milk prices are and have been for quite a while now, despite other input costs also rising, dairy farmers are the ones who are in a better position to purchase fertiliser in comparison to their beef and sheep counterparts, who are working off much tighter margins.

That’s not a shot at dairy farmers; it’s just stating facts and best of luck to them.

However, the worry on beef and sheep farms, despite witnessing record lamb prices in 2021 and improved beef prices (although not near enough still, in my opinion), any profits made last year look to be eroded this year with the way input costs have soared.

The question many have now, is how we go about growing grass without breaking the bank or credit union – as is what is being suggested as an option, to purchase fertiliser by taking out a loan with your local branch.

To try and help farmers, a couple of options were suggested at day one of the Teagasc National Sheep Conference on Tuesday evening (January 25).

Michael Gottstein, head of Sheep Knowledge Transfer at Teagasc, outlined a few actions farmers could carry out.

In terms of what you could prioritise doing now, Michael said you could:

  • Carry out a soil test where results are not available on the farm;
  • Correct soil pH to release nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K);
  • Do a fertiliser budget and investigate payment options (if not already done so);
  • Identify how much and what type of fertiliser that would need to be purchased;
  • Consider taking a one-year holiday from P and K.

While looking further ahead in the year, Michael listed some key actions that could be undertaken when it comes to ground targeted for winter fodder.

These included:

  • Considering switching silage ground to more productive/high fertility areas;
  • Prioritise low P and K index areas for applications of available slurry or farmyard manure (FYM);
  • Identify how much fodder is left over after the winter;
  • Calculate how much ground needs to be closed off;
  • Only grow what you need.

In terms of ground targeted at grazing, Michael suggested that farmers could do the following:

  • Identify where fertiliser should be spread to give you the best response, i.e. silage ground, recent reseeds and swards with high ryegrass content;
  • Reduce fertiliser application amount, but not the frequency;
  • Focus on grazing management – reduce the number of grazing groups on the farm and split grazing areas to deliver 3-5 day residency periods.

Lastly, in terms of stock on the farm, Michael suggested selling any unproductive animals – particularly on highly stocked farms.

He said that by reducing stocking rates by 10%, it could reduce fertiliser requirements by 15-20%.

Some of what Michael suggested included:

  • Sell on any dry ewes at scanning;
  • Move on any older, unproductive ewes and ewe lambs not in-lamb;
  • Ewes that lose lambs next spring should be sold rather than used to foster lambs onto;
  • Sheep farmers that keep cattle should sell any unproductive cattle;
  • Anyone contract heifer-rearing alongside a sheep enterprise should talk to the dairy farmer to re-evaluate .