Would it pay to try to grow ‘nitrate-safe’ hay? What one study suggested.

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Copyright Texas A&M AgriLife Today. Some rights reserved. Used by permission under Creative Commons.

Last year’s perfect storm of temperature extremes, tight hay supplies, humidity and rainfall conditions that contributed to nitrate toxicity in many regions had a lot of producers testing forages. Since fertilizer is the most important man-made cause of nitrate buildup in forages, one Tennessee study asked, could you influence nitrate levels in hay by better watching nitrogen fertilizer levels? More importantly, would it pay more than it cost? Here’s what they found.

The Tennessee researchers estimated the yield response of bermudagrass, the Southeast’s most common warm-season hay, to different nitrogen fertilizer levels for four different cutting months using data from a three-year hay experiment. They also then mathematically modeled the probability those different fertilization rates would create hay with nitrate levels exceeding the threshold believed to pose a poisoning risk to cattle. Finally, they used estimated costs and returns to figure what a hay grower could expect to net based on whether on not he took nitrate levels into account when setting his fertilizer levels.

They found that in only one of four months—the July cutting—would it make a difference to adjust nitrogen levels to try to control nitrate toxicity; otherwise, the most profitable fertilization rate and the risk of increasing nitrate levels were the same. For that July cutting, the nitrogen rate for the producer who watched his nitrate levels was 45 pounds per acre lower, which dragged down the expected yield by 0.58 ton per acre, to a total 1.82 tons. In addition, the researchers also deducted from his profit the cost of testing hay samples plus the cost of not selling the small fraction that would be too high in nitrates to sell to cattle producers in those other months.

All told, the cost of reducing that nitrate-toxicity risk from a nearly four-in-10 chance when fertilizing the July cutting at the yield-maximizing level to only a one-in-10 chance when cutting back on nitrogen cost $40 per acre per year. That means the necessary price premium in order to at least break even by guaranteeing the hay as safe for cattle feed would have to be $6.02 per ton.

When considering the value of that $6 per ton added production cost, it’s important to consider some implications the study didn’t measure, the authors cautioned: Namely, the hay grower who fertilizes with no regard to nitrate levels could do damage to his reputation that puts off future buyers of his hay—at any price. The hay producer who does test for nitrates can market his hay as “cattle-safe” that could (theoretically, at least) attract buyers willing to pay more for the information about the nitrate levels.

 

June

July

August

September

 

Not concerned with nitrate toxicity

Optimal N rate (lb/acre)

64.13

108.36

71.36

72.96

Optimal yield (ton/acre)

1.51

2.40

2.21

1.07

Probability of exceeding toxic nitrate threshold

3.0%

37.0%

2.0%

0.0%

 

Concerned with nitrate toxicity

Optimal N rate (lb/acre)

64.13

63.68

71.36

72.96

Optimal yield (ton/acre)

1.51

1.82

2.21

1.07

Probability of exceeding toxic nitrate threshold

3.0%

11.0%

2.0%

0.0%


Assumes: N from ammonium nitrate at $0.60 per pound, bermudagrass hay at $90 per ton, harvest costs of $104.80 per acre, forage nitrate testing at $6 per sample.
Source: Boyer CN, Griffith AP, Roberts RK, Savoy HJ, Leib BG. Nitrate Toxicity in Bermudagrass Hay and Its Effect on Net Returns. Southern Agricultural Economics Association Annual Meeting, Orlando. Feb. 3-5, 2013.
Photo copyright Texas A&M AgriLife Today. Some rights reserved. Used by permission under Creative Commons.
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