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Understanding fertilizer choices

March 11, 2016 -  By

Understand fertilizer choices to ensure you’re not wasting time, money or resources.

Fertilizer: If you’ve applied one, you’ve applied them all, right? Wrong. In fact, proper fertilizer selection can be a tricky subject, and industry experts agree that many lawn care operators (LCOs) aren’t as knowledgeable as they could be about the fertilizers they use. Uninformed LCOs risk applying the wrong amount of the wrong products at the wrong time, wasting time, money and resources.

So, do you know what’s in your bag? “Knowledge about what’s contained in fertilizer bags is important because fertilizers are nutrients, and they need to be applied differently based on season, soil type and the needs of plants,” says Eric Brown, field training manager for Massey Services, an Orlando, Fla.-based pest and lawn care firm with operations throughout the South.

Lack of knowledge

Lawn care experts say one reason there seems to be a lack of knowledge about fertilizers and their proper use is because of the green industry’s labor challenges. In an industry where many companies employ seasonal technicians, finding high-quality, long-term laborers can be difficult. Chris Derrick, national accounts manager for Koch Agronomic Services, a producer and marketer of fertilizer based in Wichita, Kan., says most company owners are knowledgeable about fertilizers and how they should be applied, but that information doesn’t always trickle down to the applicators and technicians.

Derrick says this lack of knowledge can be detrimental for several reasons. First, he says all technicians should be able to answer any questions a customer may ask about what’s being applied on their property. Second, he says many people—applicators and property owners—have misconceptions about fertilizer application techniques. More is not always better, particularly as technology evolves and improves.

“It’s been drilled into LCOs’ heads that you have to fertilize every time you’re on a property so homeowners get what they’re paying for,” Derrick says. “We’re trying to break the barrier that it’s not all about putting product on the ground, but putting the right product down at the right time and in the right place.”

Where to start

The best way for LCOs to choose the right fertilizer is to test the soil. Soil can differ region by region—and even by neighborhood. Some differences in soil types can be detected simply by looking at it. For example, soil texture and particle distribution affects nutrient retention.

“Knowing what the soil of the area being serviced contains is required, so you’re not paying for nutrients that nature is providing for free,” says Joe Welch, technical and training director of landscape services for Massey Services. “It all boils down to paying for what provides benefit to the plant and, therefore, the customer.”

For example, most soil in Florida contains sufficient phosphorus, so LCOs may not want to pay for a fertilizer with high phosphorus content, Welch says. If a lawn’s soil pH is low, a fertilizer with urea would be a good choice, but if the soil pH is high, a product with ammonium sulfate may be worth the extra cost, he adds.

“Nutrient applications should be based on a seasonal or yearly program, broken into multiple applications that supply plants with needed nutrients,” says Brown. “Only nutrients that are determined to be needed by plants after soil and tissue analysis should be applied, as many nutrients are available from the soil, water and atmosphere.”

LCOs can learn more about fertilizer options through local universities’ horticulture programs and county extension offices. Manufacturers and suppliers are another resource. For example, Koch created a handbook that breaks down basic fertilizer components.

“The responsibility really falls on the company owners to educate their customers and employees,” he says. “A basic understanding goes a long way.”
Chris Lemcke, national technical director for Weed Man USA, based in Oshawa, Ontario, says proper fertilizer use was part of the company’s foundation when it launched more than 45 years ago.

While the formula has changed over the years based on new products and price fluctuations, a 65 percent slow-release fertilizer has long been the standard for most of the company’s programs. Lemcke says the slow-release fertilizer Weed Man uses is suitable for all soil types.

“We’re able to put less nitrogen down, and the plant can take it when it needs it,” he says, adding that technicians are routinely trained on fertilizer technology.

Price points

For most LCOs, price plays an important role in deciding which products to use. Being knowledgeable about the properties of different fertilizers and selecting the best product can save LCOs time and money in the long term.

The best way for a plant to use nitrogen is by “spoon-feeding” the plant while it’s actively growing, experts say. So LCOs choose between making frequent applications of readily available nitrogen or infrequent applications of slow-release nitrogen to keep the turfgrass healthy.

Slow-release nitrogen fertilizers are pricier per application, Welch says. In areas where the soil has adequate nutrient-holding capacity and where the LCO visits lawns every six to eight weeks, paying for a product with a high slow-release content may not be beneficial or cost effective, he says. “The decision depends on how the LCO wants to operate his business,” Welch says.

When it comes to choosing a fertilizer, he says LCOs should consider the best nutrient source for the soil and the cost per pound of the nutrient being applied. Most LCOs tend to look at the cost per pound of nitrogen, but he says soil pH must also be considered.

For example, straight urea is 46-0-0 and ammonium sulfate is 21-0-0. If the cost per 50-pound bag of 46-0-0 were $17 and the cost per 50-pound bag of 21-0-0 were $14, the cost per bag of 21-0-0 would be less expensive, but the 46-0-0 contains more than twice the amount of nitrogen. In this example, 1 pound of nitrogen from urea (46 percent N) would cost 74 cents, and 1 pound of nitrogen from ammonium sulfate (21 percent N) would cost $1.33. Again, in some cases (such as high soil pH) ammonium sulfate may be worth the extra cost, Welch says.

“It’s very important to pay for the ingredients you need based on frequency of service,” Welch says. “It’s not just the fertilizer or the price, but also the active ingredients and the frequency of applications and marrying them all together.”

Lemcke says one mistake he sees LCOs make is paying for extra components that don’t improve the turf. For example, buying a fertilizer with 2 percent iron to add color to the lawn could add $1 to the cost of each bag, but it takes a product with more than 10 percent iron to make a difference, he says. And those products can be cost prohibitive.

“You have to really understand the process, how it works, consider the cost and weigh the benefits,” Lemcke says.

With improved technology, new research and ever-changing environmental factors, experts agree LCOs should always be refining their fertilizer programs. By being proactive and informed, professionals can choose the best fertilizers to create the best programs for their clients.

“The delicate balance between cost of the program and benefit of the results is continually being fine-tuned,” Welch says. “Personal knowledge increases, agronomic theories evolve and the price of nutrients over the years fluctuates. It’s constantly learning and looking at different and better ways to do things.”

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About the Author:

Emily Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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