Many Alabama farmers are reviewing their budgets for the coming season because of rising fertilizer and other expenses.

The University of Missouri's Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute says the cost of fuel that farmers need for tractors, combines and irrigation equipment jumped 31 percent last year. Prices may drop slightly in coming months, but growers are expected to be hit this year with a 33 percent increase in fertilizer costs, according to the report.

The higher nitrogen fertilizer prices are associated with the large price increases in natural gas, which is used in the nitrogen fertilizer manufacturing process.

Fertilizer costs are a significant portion of costs for farmers growing forage grasses, says Don Ball, a forage agronomist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

“Even prior to the recent increases in fertilizer costs, 20 to 40 percent of the costs in our forage production budgets are associated with nitrogen fertilizer,” says Ball. “Higher fertilizer costs will cut significantly into producers' potential profits.”

More open land in Alabama is devoted to pasture and hay production than all other agronomic and horticultural crops combined. In 1999, about 800,000 acres were harvested for hay, generating a production value of more than $100 million.

Corn is another crop that requires large amounts of nitrogen to produce at profitable levels.

“Fertilization with adequate levels of nitrogen is required for good corn grain production,” says Paul Mask, Extension agronomist. “The cost of nitrogen is the largest single variable cost in corn production. No other element produces such large and consistent increases in corn yield.”

Nitrogen accounts for 25 to 30 percent of the variable costs in corn production.

While it does not have the heavy nitrogen demands of forage grasses and corn, cotton — Alabama's leading row crop in cash receipts — does need adequate fertilization to produce top yields.

Nitrogen fertilizers account for about 10 percent of the variable costs in Extension's 2001 cotton production budget, says Max Runge, an Extension agricultural economist.

But farmers do have a variety of management options available to help them reduce fertilizer costs.

Some forage producers can fertilize fields with alternative sources of nutrients, including broiler litter, says Ball. “Broiler house litter is a good option if the farmer can get it at a reasonable price and can apply it in reasonable amounts,” he says.

Broiler litter also can be a good choice for cotton producers in north Alabama, says Charlie Burmester, Extension cotton agronomist at the Tennessee Valley Regional Research and Extension Center.

“The poultry industry is concentrated in north Alabama, and almost 200,000 acres of cotton are planted each year in this region,” says Burmester. “Those cotton acres offer a potential use for the litter. By using litter, farmers could lower cotton production costs as well as provide a more environmentally friendly means of disposing of litter.”

Broiler litter also may be a good option for cotton producers in south Alabama, where the poultry industry is expanding, says Burmester.

Higher crop input costs also has caused a renewed interest in precision farming, says Mask. “In precision farming, on-board computers on tractors make use of global positioning satellites and other technologies to apply fertilizers in customized applications. This allows farmers to apply fertilizers and other resources to areas where they will generate the most income,” he says.

Because diesel fuel and gasoline prices remain high, farmers also face higher costs for planting and working their crops this year. This could make conservation-tillage production systems more attractive to Alabama farmers, says Dale Monks, Extension crop physiologist.

“In conservation-tillage systems, we avoid disturbing the soils any more than necessary. Instead, we can leave the plant materials from the recently harvested crop in the field. These systems reduce the number of trips through the field, saving fuel, labor and time while reducing machinery wear and tear,” says Monks.