Farmers and others in agriculture now find themselves in an agronomic “perfect storm,” says Paul Fixen of the International Plant Nutrition Institute.

“A lot of factors are coming together that could potentially impact our decision-making process as it relates to nutrient use,” said Fixen at the 2009 Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio.

“It think it’s important that we all stop for a minute and look at the context we’re in, relative to decision making,” says Fixen. “The first thing that comes to anyone’s mind is the market conditions, particularly the volatility, along with the generally higher farming input prices we’ve seen, especially in 2008.”

There’s a great deal of uncertainty, he says, concerning the future demand for food and fiber products, and the impact that’ll have on agriculture and on nutrient management decisions. “Some interesting reviews also have been done lately on the impact of climate change, specifically on changing precipitation and temperature patterns on the demand of crops for nutrients as well as the soil’s ability to supply nutrients to the crop,” says Fixen.

Genetic advancements also must be considered, he adds. “Due to developments in biotechnology and breeding, we continue to see dramatic changes in crop genotypes.”

Additionally, he says, changes currently occurring in Washington could have a potential impact, including policies dealing with issues like reducing greenhouse and ammonium emissions. “These kinds of concerns likely will have an effect on how we handle nutrients in the next several years,” says Fixen.

There have been recent advances, he says, in the adoption of sensory and application technology, enhanced efficiency fertilizers, and a number of other developments that have moved to mainstream agriculture.

All of these factors together, says Fixen, have created an unprecedented situation. “One implication of all this is that fertilizer has been getting a lot more attention. The general media is picking up and developing stories about fertilizer to a much greater extent than in the past. Some of that has been good because it has connected fertilizer and food production in a more direct way than we have seen at least since the mid-1970s,” he says.

Fixen quotes J. Paul Getty who said, “In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy.”

“Future nutrient management decisions may need to be more measurement-based than historical-based. We may really need to stop and think about how we have always been doing things in the past and ask if these same practices are still appropriate for the future. Past performance in a region for a practice may not necessarily reflect future performance,” he says.

Turning to price volatility, Fixen says changes in fertilizer prices in the past year have been “absolutely amazing.” “For many products, prices declined about as fast as they climbed, at least at the wholesale level. We have a plugged pipeline now with wholesale prices that differ from retail prices. Part of this volatility was caused by the financial crisis. It has changed everything in a way that no one predicted. We’ve seen volatility not just in inputs but also in the value of our crops,” he says.

Fixen encourages growers to utilize a “four R” strategy of nutrient management. That is, applying the right source at the right rate at the right time and at the right place. This plan will help growers manage the much higher risks of today’s market, he says.

“Essentially, there’s greater economic justification for precision input application, enhanced efficiency products, guidance systems, soil testing, plant analysis, crop imaging and other forms of decision making.”

As growers attempt to decide how to allocate their fertilizer resources across various crops, soil nutrient supply becomes critical, says Fixen. “There’s a huge difference if we have a lower nutrient supply or a higher nutrient supply. If we’re at a low nutrient supply, we see a very steep response curve. Market conditions don’t influence optimum rates very much under that scenario.

“If we’re in a medium situation, where we’re getting a lot of nutrients being supplied from the soil, this is where market conditions actually influence optimum rates a lot more, and that’s when we need to think about adjusting things. If we’re at a high soil nutrient supply situation, we don’t expect any response from the nutrients there. The only reason one would apply the nutrient is to maintain soil fertility at a non-limiting level. One of the advantages with that approach is that you have flexibility.”

Balanced fertility remains one of the most important factors affecting fertilizer effectiveness and the performance of other inputs, says Fixen. “Look at what the crop needs and make sure you address all those needs.”

Nutrient allocation becomes especially important, he says, when supply or capital is limited. “You’ll want to allocate much of the nutrients to the more responsive areas. Responsive areas would be low-testing areas for P and K, or low-organic soils where you would expect a large response to nitrogen — don’t short those areas.

“But apply some of the nutrients to less responsive areas as well. The reason we say this is because most of the response occurs with the first few units of the nutrient. You don’t want to miss out on those kinds of responses.”

Fixen says farmers should avoid being general and should be as specific as possible when making nutrient application decisions. “Consider adopting new technology, updating old technology, and updating calibration information. Base decisions on measurements whenever possible.”

As a member of an organization that includes all nutrient manufacturers, Fixen says it wouldn’t be legal for him to make future price projections, because it would appear as though he was attempting to set prices.

“But in the short-term, we have a plugged pipeline. The spike in prices caused all kinds of problems throughout the world. Some fertilizer dealers were concerned about being able to supply product to their customers. Now, we have a high-priced product sitting in a bin, and wholesale prices have dropped significantly. That has plugged things up all over the place. We have hard times going on, with negotiations between dealers and growers.”