Tim McClelland is one of manytralian farmers being forced to rethink the howoperates this year, placing greater reliance on soil science technology in the wake of soaring fertilizer prices.
McClelland, a mixed farmer based in north-western Victoria, is currently paying $1,100 a tonne for fertilizer, up from $650 in 2021, as the rising energy cost leads to record prices.
While McClelland has always depended on the results of soil sampling to apply variable fertilizer rates across his farm, the price squeeze makes it more important than ever to use the nutrient judiciously. In previous years he tested half the soil zones on his farm, but this year he has tried almost all of them.
“[Soil sampling] tells us how much nitrogen phosphorous we had in our soil at the start of the year, making it easier for us to match our supply to our demand,” he said.
Fertiliser is one of several imports causing farmers financial pain, despite projections of a bumper season.
Andrew Whitelaw, an agricultural market analyst at Thomas Elder Markets, said the latest fertilizer prices of $960 a tonne are more than double the average price of $405 between 2017 and 2020.
Whitelaw said farmers could use less fertilizer if they employ technologies that help them be more prescriptive in its application.
While many farmers already used soil sampling, the fertilizer prices are making the practice more refined in a trend that will likely continue, even once fertilizer prices drop again, said Whitelaw.
According to Cheryl Kalisch Gordon, commodities analyst at Rabobank, Australian farmers use 6-7m tonnes of fertilizer each year. Some fertilizers are forecast to increase due to the nation’s growing agricultural production.
Tim McClelland on his mixed farm in north-western Victoria
Kalisch Gordon said Australia’s supply was particularly exposed to the international market, with a heavy reliance on foreign importation.
Australia imports 100% of its potassium – one of the nutrients in fertilizer – from the US, Canada, and Belarus, but imports from Belarus are currently impossible due to the war in Ukraine.
Australia also imports 93% of its urea, primarily from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and China. Kalisch Gordon said this supply is also strained due to China’s export bans to secure domestic stores.
More considered application of fertilizer use comes as experts highlight the need to tackle the global mismanagement of phosphorous – another vital ingredient in fertilizer – in the most detailed report yet on the phosphorus problem.
Bryan Spears, professor at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and a lead author of the report, said, “phosphorus could push us to the brink of a food security crisis. It is a finite resource, and it is overused in developed countries while developing countries do not have enough.”
McClelland said nitrogen bank numbers are designed to help farmers achieve 80% production potential, which is the maximum yield possible. The other 20% will be affected by factors beyond farmers’ control, such as frost, insects, and weeds.
McClelland said the testing had not necessarily saved fertilizer, but “certainly helped” redistribute the fertilizer from areas that didn’t need it to places that did.
He said his farm used less fertilizer than last year because he had deliberately planted more paddocks of pulses, such as lentils, which require less fertilizer.
Justin Everitt, the chair of the New South Wales Farmers Grains Committee, said he expected the practice of grid sampling, more in-depth soil tests, and variable mapping to be “wildly up”.
Everitt said farmers also need fertilizer to take advantage of the good seasonal conditions.
“The problem is, we’re having such a good year as far as rainfall goes.
“The potential for a good crop meaning that we’re just going to have to suck these prices up and continue as normal,” Everitt said.
Prof Michael McLaughlin, director of the Fertiliser Technology Research Centre at the University of Adelaide, said high prices often push farmers to improve their efficiency. Still, there is a danger when prices are so high that farmers start to look for alternatives, which are cheaper but not as effective.
McLaughlin said traditional alternative products such as animal waste and compost are viable for home gardens, but logistically not possible when 30,000 hectares needed to be sewn within a few weeks.
Everitt said fertilizer prices had taken a “massive hit” out of last year’s bumper crop, the savings from which would normally have been put away for poorer seasons in the future.
“We thought we had a pretty good run last year … and lo and behold, all these high fertilizer prices, high fuel prices, and then high chemical [prices have] just eaten away at the excess that you probably plan to put away for a drought.”