Hopefully, 2003 won’t see a repeat of the extremely dry or extremely wet weather conditions of recent years, but even if it does, there are steps farmers can take to minimize the impact of drought or excess rainfall, according to agronomists.

Several years ago, IMC Global Operations and the Potash and Phosphate Institute introduced a program called “Back to the Basics” that was designed to help growers reverse a disturbing trend toward declining soil test values and increase crop yields and bottom lines.

Agronomists with IMC and PPI say a new survey indicates soil test values are still low in many parts of the country, but the problem is taking on a new level of urgency given the weather conditions farmers have encountered in recent seasons.

“The surveys show that we’re still mining our soils by not bringing soil test levels up to where they should be,” says Ray Hoyum, vice president of market development and communications at IMC. “But when you put a crop under stress and have low soil test values, you have the ingredients for a disaster.”

Paul Fixen, senior vice president with the Potash and Phosphate Institute, says farmers have an opportunity to help their crops better withstand droughts and flooding with a well-balanced fertility program.

“Balanced soil fertility not only helps growers deal with stressful weather conditions,” he says, “but enables them to get every bushel out of every acre, improve efficiency and take advantage of any bumps in the commodity market.”

After farmers experienced one of the worst droughts since the 1930s in 2002, IMC officials decided it was time to take their program a step further and go “Beyond the Basics” in their advice to farmers.

“Many producers have asked how they can buffer against these stressful situations,” says Hoyum. “It is critical that producers have current soil test information for nutrients such as phosphorus and potassium, because inadequate levels of these nutrients will reduce root growth and increase susceptibility to drought conditions.”

Fixen noted that a nationwide survey conducted by the Potash & Phosphate Institute in 1997 revealed that nearly half of the nation’s farmland were testing medium or lower for both P and K.

A repeat of the survey in 2001 showed little change, primarily because farmers have become extremely conservative because of low commodity prices. “Unfortunately, many growers have cut back on P and K to save money at a time when they needed to be increasing their applications,” Fixen noted.

“Everyone seems to agree that we’re headed toward more weather variability. Thus, good fertility practices could become even more critical.”

Other experts say it’s critical that producers have current soil test information for nutrients such as phosphorus and potassium for their fields. “Inadequate levels of these nutrients will reduce root growth and increase susceptibility to drought conditions,” says Richard B. Ferguson, a soil scientist with the University of Nebraska.

Just how important are higher fertility levels in drought conditions? Hoyum and Fixen point to an Ohio State University corn study that showed an 81-bushel-per-acre yield increase when soil test levels for P and K were increased in a stressful year. Soybean yields went up 15 bushels per acre.

“You don’t see this kind of response in a ‘normal’ year,” says Hoyum.

In a four-year Mississippi State University study by agronomist Jack Varco, cotton yields increased by more than 100 pounds of lint per acre with applications of 140 pounds of potash – even though rainfall amounts were decreasing.

“With higher levels of potassium especially, you really do get improved use of water,” says Fixen. “In some areas, scientists are seeing up to a 200 percent increase in water use efficiency with higher soil test levels.”

“This is where an aggressive fertility program can make a major difference,” said Fixen. “Basically, all we’re suggesting is that growers follow soil test recommendations to bring their soil fertility up to high.”

What if growers increase soil test levels and there is no drought?

“If good growing conditions occur, growers have lost nothing,” says Harold Reetz, Midwest director for PPI. “The higher nutrient supply will be in place and available to provide for higher crop nutrient needs and to help improve sue-efficiency of other production inputs.”

For more information on how to deal with stressful weather conditions, go to the back-to-basics.net Web-site, which IMC and PPI developed two years ago.

“This is when every dollar counts,” says Hoyum. “It’s through our Web site and other educational materials that growers can find timely information and resources on how a balanced soil fertility programs helps deal with stressful weather situations.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com