High feed, fertilizer, and chemical prices are currently main topics of conversation. Many times, the initial reaction to price increases is to cut back or eliminate particular inputs. While this can be an effective response, there are consequences to consider.
In many regards, managing increased input costs are very similar for forage production and livestock feeding. The simple response is to only buy what you need. How do you figure that out? Identifying appropriate feed and fertilizer needs can only be accomplished by forage or soil testing. The idea is to get the necessary nutrients for the desired level of production at the least cost. Testing allows informed decisions to be made regarding the need for purchased fertilizer and feed inputs.
Fertilizing pasture and hay ground based on a soil test identifies the most limiting nutrients in the field and allows limited dollars to be channeled where the greatest response is likely to occur. If pH is low, fix that first. Other elements in the soil, such as phosphorus, have lowered plant availability if pH is low. Likewise, if phosphorus is low, concentrate on that nutrient.
For pastures, limiting nitrogen applications in the spring can allow for legumes to compete in the stand. In many cases, nitrogen applications make more sense in August to stimulate fall regrowth than to apply nitrogen to stimulate excess spring forage production, especially if the excess growth can’t be harvested effectively.
Nitrogen applications to hay fields is a bit more straightforward, but is dependent on other factors in addition to soil test results. Cutting back on fertilizer inputs will likely reduce yield, so where will the other hay production come from? Additional harvested acres or purchased hay? Both of these options come with costs that might actually be higher than what is saved by reduced nitrogen or other nutrient applications.
Looking at the feeding side of the equation, purchasing unnecessary nutrients results in unnecessary cost. Underfeeding rewards us with lowered production which also comes at a cost. Forage testing allows for more accurate and cost-effective feeding programs to be developed which balances out problems associated with overfeeding or underfeeding particular nutrients.
Cutting back or totally eliminating particular inputs may save money in the short term, but be aware of and take into account additional costs that may be incurred down the road. These could include harvesting more hay acres, buying additional feed in the form of hay or other supplements, reduced calving rates, lower weaning weights, or in the case of backgrounding, owning the calves for a longer period of time to reach target market weights.
None of this is easy, but it’s all about targeting where input dollars are spent in order to get the most return from those input costs. If you would like additional information on any of these topics, contact me at schmitze@missouri.edu or by calling the Pettis County Extension Center at (660) 827-0591.