Hill country fertility

The key to taking advantage of good prices for sheep and beef lies in growing enough feed – and that means addressing fertiliser needs on your hill country.

At long last it looks like sheep and beef farmers are going to be in a position to reinvest in their farm and build their business, thanks to at least two consecutive profitable years. For many, one area of attention will no doubt be restoring soil fertility levels on hill country, so that they can build stocking rates and boost income.

In fact, within the fertiliser industry, we are already seeing evidence of this intention. Indications from our customers point towards a large increase in the amount of fertiliser and lime due to be applied to hills this season.

However, there is a catch! The downturn experienced by sheep and beef between 2007 and 2010 meant services such as aerial top-dressing had to reduce their capacity in response. Now that the demand is back, there are limited planes and trucks to service the need. The only way to deal with this will be to get in first – order your fertiliser and book your aerial spread before the rush starts.

Of course, before you do this, you’ll want to answer some critical questions . . .

If money is limited, what should I apply to my hills - fertiliser or lime?

The answer to this will vary from farm to farm. But if you have a low Olsen P (<15) and low soil pH (< 5.5) then fertiliser should be your priority. Research shows there is more financial gain to be made from applying fertiliser in this situation. Where Olsen P is high (> 20) and pH low (<5.5), lime should be your priority.

What nutrients should be applied in the fertiliser?

Sixty years of research in hill country shows that the two most important nutrients in this situation are phosphorus (P) and sulphur (S). These are most cheaply applied in superten-type products. The other essential macro-nutrients - calcium, magnesium and potassium - are either supplied from soil minerals or applied in lime and superten. As far as trace elements are concerned, the only one that might be required for pasture growth is molybdenum. Check levels by taking a clover-only herbage sample. There will be more than enough copper, zinc, iron and manganese present in the soil to meet plant needs.

How important is timing of application?

If there has been a good fertiliser history and soil Olsen P levels are greater than 15, then the timing of your annual fertiliser application does not matter because there is adequate P in the soil to supply pasture. But if Olsen P levels are too low to provide sufficient P for pasture growth, then it’s important to get fertiliser on as early in the season as possible. This will help boost clover and improve pasture production. This scenario is likely to be the case on your steeper hill country. So if you can’t afford to apply all your P and S fertiliser early in the season, consider applying it to your steep hills in late spring or even early summer, and dealing with the easy hills and flat land in autumn, when more cash is available.

What place has nitrogen fertiliser got on my hills?

Of all the nutrients, it is nitrogen (N) that drives pasture production. If there is insufficient atmospheric N being fixed by legumes, the pasture will be dominated by poor grass species such as browntop. These grasses are only in a green vegetative state for a short period in the spring, suppressing feed supply as well as quality.

The ideal time to get N on in hill country is early spring, so you can increase pasture cover for lactating ewes. As for all inputs, N will only give a profitable return if the extra pasture is converted into high-value meat and wool products. The economics of N application depend on the returns achieved from product and the cost of both the product and application services.

To sum up, as with all aspects of farming, forward planning is paramount. Aim to get as much fertiliser as possible on the areas that will give the best response and apply this as early as possible in the growth season. A good soil testing programme will allow you to determine where nutrients need to be applied, and at what rate.

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