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In this article, William Baillie, farm management consultant, food and farming team, Savills offers advice on what to consider when thinking about switching to liquid fertiliser.
See also: How to co-operate to reduce costs
Q My neighbour recently moved to liquid nitrogen fertiliser. Should I be considering this?
A There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to using either solid or liquid nitrogen.
However, more recently we have seen a gradual shift towards liquid, as farmers look to use machinery and labour more efficiently to offset ever-increasing overheads.
Farm management consultant, food and farming team, Savills
Nitrogen placement is important and this is where liquid nitrogen offers significant benefits over the solid form.
Liquid application allows the precise placement of fertiliser across the whole spread width.
Sprayer technology such as auto-shut off virtually eliminates overlaps, making savings of up to 10% through greater accuracy.
This also provides increased confidence if you are looking to expand tramline widths beyond 24m, because variables such as wind and gradient are less likely to have an impact.
These savings on reduced use through greater accuracy should be looked at in the context of potentially higher purchase costs.
Direct cost comparisons are difficult but as a guide (using average 2016 fertiliser prices) a winter wheat fertiliser programme using 240kgN/ha led to higher purchase costs of between 5% and 15% when using liquid nitrogen compared with solid equivalents, although timing of purchases will significantly affect this figure each season.
A significant downside to liquid nitrogen application is the risk of scorch, a problem which has been common this year due to the lack of moisture following applications.
Scorch from liquid nitrogen can cause spotting and tipping, both of which reduce green leaf area with the potential to affect the final crop yield.
This needs to be weighed up against the potential cost saving that comes from greater use of a sophisticated sprayer.
Applying liquid nitrogen means sprayer costs can be offset against a larger applied area, but it is worth bearing in mind there are risks to over-reliance on one machine as tight weather windows or breakdowns may cause spray and fertiliser applications to come at once, potentially missing timings.
Liquid nitrogen is also corrosive, increasing wear on booms, pumps and electrical connections, so proper maintenance is important. Also, most farms apply solid P and K, so a granular spreader is still required.
Also, most farms apply solid P and K, so a granular spreader is still required.
Labour use is a key consideration when comparing the two options, as liquid fertiliser offers a low labour system with no requirement for unloading of bags, transporting or loading the spreader.
Tanks can easily be situated strategically across the farmed area, so reducing travel time.
This can make moving to liquid attractive for farmers across all scales, allowing smaller units to effectively use minimal labour and provide flexibility for large-scale farmers and contractors covering multiple sites.
It is essential to manage the provision of liquid fertiliser with distributors to make sure tanks are topped up to meet your needs.
However past experience with several of our managed farms has shown this should not put farmers off, as prior planning and good communication with distributors goes a long way towards avoiding supply issues.
One benefit of liquid which can easily be overlooked is unlike solid fertiliser there is no requirement for shed space, as storage tanks are available through liquid fertiliser suppliers.
This can free up space for crop and machinery storage, or perhaps a commercial storage rental which can generate additional income.
Liquid fertiliser, unlike solid ammonium nitrate (AN), has no risk of fire and there is no danger of falling bags.
The disposal of empty bags is also not an issue but there is a potential pollution risk from leaked liquid and this is a serious consideration.
It is important the two options are evaluated in terms of cost, although a direct comparison can be difficult as distributors have a habit of delaying pricing for liquid products against the early offers for solid AN or urea.
This can lead to relatively higher prices for liquid nitrogen, especially given that the market is dominated by relatively few manufacturers.
This allows distributors to specify their own blends of liquid nitrogen, often containing sulphur, making like for like comparisons between distributors tricky.
Alternatively, it is possible to mix cheaper grades of bulk solid into a liquid form by adding water. However, this is not particularly common as caution should be taken to ensure products are mixed consistently.
Overall, the use of liquid fertiliser needs to be reviewed at a whole-farm level, as it can offer the opportunity to make better use of machinery, labour and buildings.
Speak to other liquid users in your area to see how they get on with it and to understand the reliability and competitiveness of the supply base.
Most who make the switch to liquid stick with it and on some farms where storage is at a premium either for own use or to rent out, this can be an important factor.
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