How 8 farmers are responding to high fertiliser prices

Last season, many growers bought fertiliser, or at least a proportion of it, before the prices rocketed in September 2021.

With high commodity prices following, it meant, in the end, there was little incentive to cut fertiliser applications.

This season looks different.

Unless some nitrogen (N) was saved from last season, or you have alternative sources, most will have had to pay more for N than ever before.

This is being coupled with, currently, a wheat grain market that fell to an 11-month low of £223/t in late January.

See also: How starter fertiliser can raise pulse yields by 17%

So, how are farmers reacting?


James Pick, North Yorkshire

Aiming to reduce synthetic nitrogen requirements is standard policy on James Pick’s family farm as they transition towards a regenerative style of farming.

He cut last season’s nitrogen – bought well in advance for £180/t – by about 10% across the farm and is planning to further reduce applied N this season.

James Pick

© James Pick

This year’s N has been bought at £700/t, with another lorry load still to purchase, but price isn’t a factor in the policy.

“Historically, we’ve applied about 200-210kg N/ha in wheat. Last year, we were between 156kg N/ha and 190kg N/ha, and this year I expect some fields will be down to 130kg N/ha.”

The reduction has been primarily towards the end of the season, with the first two applications standard rates.

“We then use Yara’s N Tester to assess the crop, look at soil conditions, weather forecast and judge our yield potential to base the last two applications off.”

While the first application will be bagged N and the second liquid N, the last two applications on a proportion of the farm are likely to be foliar nitrogen made on farm by melting urea to a concentration of 5%.

“Some research says foliar N can be up to seven times more efficient than soil applied. I’m not sure it is quite as high as that, but it could be 2.5 to three times more, so it’s really utilising what we have on the farm,” he says.

Underpinning the reductions is wide use of organic manures and compost across the farm.

Around three-quarters of the potato area receives farmyard manure

From last year half of the arable area will receive application of 10t/ha composted manure, having previously had farmyard manure.


Will Oliver, Leicestershire

About 160t of fertiliser bought at £274/t ahead of last season, plus poultry muck and digestate from the broiler business and sewage sludge, has left Will Oliver in a place where he feels confident to push to produce 1,000t of Skyfall milling wheat this season.

Will Oliver

© Tim Scrivener

“With milling wheat premiums where they are, and domestic feed wheat demand falling with pigs and poultry struggling, I think the opportunity to grow milling quality is too good to dismiss.”

Poultry muck applied at 6t/ha accounts for about one-third of his N requirements in wheat and will be applied, weather permitting, as the second application to wheat, following ammonium nitrate or ammonium sulphate as the initial top dressing.

“If I think the crop needs the N, I’ll go ammonium nitrate, which I’ll do this year as we’ve got some later sown crops that I will want to get growing.”

Fertiliser bought at £630/t has been purchased as a back-up plan in case it is too wet to spread organic manures.

“We’re on 36m tramlines but spread digestate and poultry muck at 18m so we don’t want to make a mess. But if conditions are right, you can do it, and a week later you don’t know you’ve been there.”

How the crop reacts to the organic manures will then dictate when and how a third and sometimes fourth dose of N is applied, he says. An N tester is used to help with decision-making.

“It gives an index number relative to the situation, and what it thinks you need to apply to reach your target end market. I use it as a guide.”

On the milling wheat last year, he also applied a foliar, slow-release N product MZ28, which is supposed to replace about 50kg N/ha.

“We did a tramline trial and there was no difference in yield despite applying 50kg N/ha less, and the proteins were fine.”

East Anglia

James Sills, Essex/Suffolk border

Most of James Sills’ nitrogen requirements were purchased ahead of the season, with, for the first time, a proportion of a granular urea sulphur compound part of the mix.

“While spread quality and overlaps are a concern, the price discount to liquid urea ammonium nitrate was too large to ignore last summer,” he says. “We prefer the accuracy of liquid so hope this will be a one-off.”

Wheat has established on the farm without any major limitations, meaning there is good potential.

Ultimately, the total dose of N applied to his hard feed wheats Champion, Gleam and Dawsum will be determined by any abnormal spring weather at the time of the final application and the cost of the additional purchased N required for it, which will be made this spring.

“It’s important to distinguish between the average and marginal price of N when determining total N dose,” he suggests.

“The price I’ve paid for the initial 125kg N/ha is immaterial to the decision about how much additional N to purchase.

“What’s more important is I’ve made the decision of when to buy, to buy more until the marginal cost of that additional unit of N roughly equals the marginal revenue.”

Mr Sills is aware, with current volatility in both grain and input prices, that having bought most of his inputs without selling a lot of the output raises the chances of a big mismatch.

“We will need to check where our limits are to avoid unacceptable risk.”

He is less concerned about trying to tailor N inputs to the nearest kg.

“It’s annoying, but the N response is both flat and has an optimum that is difficult to predict beforehand. It’s easy to fall into the trap of being exactly wrong rather than approximately right.”

Instead, he’s looking at low-tech ways of improving efficiency, but where he can be more confident of a positive impact. One such example is blocking off holes in the fertiliser nozzles to avoid applying fertiliser to tramlines.

“This has probably saved a few percent – perhaps 3% in the best case of our overall fertiliser use, which given current prices is at least worth an hour with some superglue.”


Amy Geddes, Angus

Liquid fertiliser tanks are leased from Yara, which limits purchasing options.

But with supply not guaranteed for last spring, Amy Geddes bought some urea at £708/t and polysulphate, which ultimately was not needed after the Yara liquid N25+S and N35 was delivered.

Amy Gedes

© Amy Gedes

“So we’ve got that urea to use, and it is in the fertiliser plan for coming season,” Mrs Geddes says.

That plan involves melting it with the help of an experienced neighbour and using it as the second application on wheat, with liquid N25+S – mostly bought at £573/cu m – used for the initial application.

“It’s going to be a different season for us, and will require a bit more attention to detail as a new experience. But if it is successful, it might be something we continue with.

“Our feeling is the market might move towards urea rather than ammonium nitrates, so if it is easy to manage, better value and the result’s consistent then it might be a transition for us.”

Mrs Geddes uses a simple, home-produced Excel nutrient planning tool, which uses soil analyses every five years and cropping information to build a balance-sheet approach and help guide applications within the nitrate vulnerable zone they farm in.

“Using that, I feel confident we are applying what the crop needs based on solid evidence, and the yield results have been consistent. So I think what will influence applications this season will be the wheat price.”

So far, none of the wheat for the coming season has been sold following historical practice, although Mrs Geddes is not averse to changing that in future.

South West

Emma Foot, Dorset

Nitrogen management has taken a much more complicated turn this season for Emma Foot, with the publication of Environment Agency targets for maximum nutrient losses across the farm, as part of the plan to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loading in Poole Harbour catchment.

Nitrogen losses across the farm must be no higher than 18.1kg/ha/year from this year, with two tools – a nitrate leaching tool (NLT) and agricultural compliance tool (ACT) – provided to help calculate nutrient losses and ensure compliance with existing regulations.

Using the nitrate leaching tool, at least initially, is not straightforward, Miss Foot says. “There’s an 80-page guide to explain how to use it.”

A training session run by Catchment Sensitive Farming has helped, with tips on using soil samples to calculate soil nitrogen supply rather than the calculated values likely to be followed.

A decision, once the final loss figure has been calculated, will be made about further mitigations or whether to join a scheme with a defined path to meeting the targets by 2030, costing £150/year.

The farm uses overwinter phacelia, clover and buckwheat cover crops for their nutrient holding ability before all spring crops, and bought protected 46% N urea for this season at £804/t, which will also reduce risk.

Miss Foot also bought Nitram (£630/t) and is trying liquid 24N+S (£517/t) for the first time this season, after good performance on two neighbouring farms.

“We’re about half liquid, half granules this season. It will also give us extra capacity to apply when the weather is good.”


Mark Wood, Herefordshire

Ammonium nitrate for the coming season has cost between £1.83-£2.08/kg, topped up with unprotected urea at £1.64/kg – like many others, easily the highest prices he has ever paid.

Mark Wood

© Richard Stanton

The urea will be used as the initial application in February, which lessens the need to use protected product.

With dry springs in recent years, Mr Wood has increased the dose of that application on wheat to 60kgN/ha from 30kg N/ha, balancing building biomass with lodging risk.

He is budgeting on using up to 180kg N/ha on his wheat – that’s less than the 200kg N/ha typically used on the crop about three seasons ago, but potentially slightly more than the 170-175kg N/ha used last year.

“We will target where is good and where is bad rather than do a blanket treatment across all fields.

“So if something doesn’t have the potential, we will cut our losses and pull back, whereas if some of our heavier ground is looking great, we can up that.”

Potential is judged by eye rather than using any tools, while in-field, variable-rate applications of nitrogen have been nullified by using variable-rate seed and are no longer used.

Foliar N worked well last season in the extremely dry conditions for the later application. “We found the crop did stay greener and I’m not sure if we had put solid N on in early May we would have seen the same benefits.

“If we do hit these dry times, it’s the right way to get nitrogen into the crop, so protecting that supply for this season was important to us. But I have an open mind and we will probably do a field trial this season to check it.”

Northern Ireland

Simon Best, County Armagh

Granular 46% urea, which will be dissolved on farm to apply as a liquid, was bought by Simon Best for £780/t in August.

That should meet at least 90% of his nitrogen requirements for the season, but 85% is more expensive than last year’s average price.

Simon Best

© Steffan Hill

Last season, a mild winter meant crops were forward coming into the spring, with a lot of soil nitrogen carried through, which allowed him to cut N to 175kg N/ha from the traditionally applied 200-210kg N/ha.

“But I will only reduce N this year if the season allows, and the winter has been wet and colder, so crops aren’t as forward. I’m budgeting on 185-190kg N/ha.

“I’ll judge it as the season goes and could top this up as I don’t want to compromise on yield and quality.”

A soil nutrient health scheme launched in Northern Ireland means the whole farm was soil sampled for organic matter, P, K and magnesium in January for free, as a condition for direct support payments.

He uses NovaCropControl sap analysis three or four times a season to understand, adjust and balance nutrient levels in the crop through the season.

“The philosophy is to manage everything in the crop so there are not any limiting factors and know that when we apply nitrogen it is going to be used efficiently by the crop. It’s been productive for us.”

Research by Teagasc in Ireland that shows a lower amount of N than suggested by RB209 is required for milling oats. “It’s more like 125 kgN/ha rather than 160kg N/ha,” he says.

“We’ve been at that level for a while, which helps prevent lodging to protect quality, but it’s hard to come back much further.”

South East

Doug Wanstall, Kent

Doug Wanstall has been developing multiple methods of creating his own fertiliser and crop nutrition on the farm, which is minimising his bagged fertiliser requirements in his regenerative system.

Douglas Wanstall


Mr Wanstall is hopeful that next year he might not need to buy any synthetic fertiliser.

This year, he bought sufficient bagged N to apply 40kg N/ha to his wheat, and another 40kg N/ha of foliar nitrogen, which is equivalent to about 80kg N/ha out of a bag.

Last year, the maximum he applied was 120kg N/ha, resulting in above-average yields, but a failure to make milling quality.

“We’re not growing specifically for milling now. There’s a distillery on farm, so we’re growing blends and some heritage grains for them for a premium.”

Growing lucerne in the rotation provided 60-70kg N/ha residual nitrogen in the soil last season, with soil tests ongoing to confirm supply this spring.

Compost to feed soil biology is applied in the autumn with a second application likely on one field of second wheat.

Mr Wanstall is also experimenting with fermented fish products that will supply amino acids and a carbon source to the plants and soil biology, and insect frass fertiliser.

He has neither in the quantity required for the whole farm this spring, but will trial on individual fields, while scaling up production of both for next season.

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