With the growing season just a few weeks away farmers have still time to make a small investment which can repay handsome dividends in terms of the profitability of their business.

“ A simple soil analysis, costing less than half a bag of fertiliser is the first step in ensuring that the right balance of nutrients is applied to grass or arable crops” according to Tony Mc Ivor of Gouldings Fertilisers. “The benefits of meeting the needs of the growing crop are obvious in terms of maximising yield – but also in saving in fertiliser costs. Without an analysis to guide the fertiliser program some nutrients could be wastefully applied while lack of others could limit production.”

The pH or lime status of the soil is the first and critical consideration. The availability of nutrients in the soil is highly dependent on its pH - for example soil phosphate is only half as available at pH 5.5 as it is at pH 6.5. Getting the pH right will unlock the full value of applied slurry and fertiliser.

The next step is to build a fertiliser program based on the analysis and which gives the balance of nitrogen to phosphate and potash which is key to maximising crop yield. In the ten years since the introduction of the Nitrates Directive phosphate applications have been closely monitored and analysis is important to ensure compliance - but also establish that soil P status is adequate to support the required  crop yield. Potash status is often the limiting factor in arable crops and in silage production where a shortage of this nutrient is a common cause of disappointing yields. While slurry is a valuable source of potash it is not always practical to apply sufficient volumes and on many fields an application of straight potash ahead of the growing season would be required to restore K status and would produce significant yield benefits.

Getting best value from applied fertiliser is also a matter of timing and farmers are advised to sow early and take full advantage of the high yield potential of spring grass. In the early part of the season every £1 spent on fertiliser will produce a return of £7 to £8 worth of grass dry matter. This conversion efficiency falls steadily through the summer so the aim should be to maximise yields of first cut silage when it can be produced at the lowest cost.

Fertiliser demand firming

Fertiliser pricing this season has reflected the fact that 70% of the fertiliser used in Europe is applied to arable crops. This sector tends to be the principal driver of demand and this is reflected in the price of fertiliser locally. The weaker grain prices in late 2013 had taken the heat out of the fertiliser market and early purchasers will be pleased to have been well rewarded. Since then favourable planting conditions across Europe have led to a much increased acreage of winter crop which requires higher fertiliser inputs – this is now driving demand and indicating firmer prices with merchants reporting steady movements of fertiliser to farm as buyers seek to secure supplies at good value.