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Early Season Nitrogen Fertilizer Application for Pastures

John Hanchar, Farm Business Management Specialist
Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock & Field Crops

April 1, 2013


  • Mid April nitrogen fertilizer applications can be expected to increase the amount of forage available to pastured dairy cows during the early part of the grazing season - for example, through early June.
  • Expected increases in profit associated with additional early season nitrogen fertilizer applications are dependent upon the extent to which the producer can convert increased forage availability attributed to early nitrogen fertilizer application into reduced total mixed ration (TMR) purchased.
  • Expected changes in profit are sensitive to the expected reduction in TMR purchased, expected TMR price, expected nitrogen needed, and expected price of nitrogen, suggesting that producers develop analyses specific to the farm business.

A Question for Analysis
The following question resulted from producer interest in identifying the optimal mix of stored and pasture sourced feeds. Stored feeds include those grown and/ or purchased, including, for example, a purchased TMR.

Does it make sense to produce additional forage to be grazed in pastures early in the grazing season via an early season application of nitrogen fertilizer given milk production goals, and given that feed needs are to be met using the optimal mix of pasture sourced feed and purchased TMR?

Partial Budgeting
One measure that producers use to evaluate possible changes in practices is the expected change in profit. Profit equals the total value of production minus the costs of inputs used in production. Expected change in profit equals the expected change in total value of production minus the expected change in costs. Analysts construct a partial budget to estimate the expected change in profit associated with a proposed change in the farm business, for example, early season application of nitrogen fertilizer to pastures.

Selected Assumptions
  • Number of cows - constant for proposed and current: 65
  • Acres of pasture for May and early June - constant for proposed and current: 90
  • Number of days grazed for analysis - constant for proposed and current: 35
  • Production target (lbs. of milk per cow per day) - constant for proposed and current: 50 to 60
  • Fall freshening - constant for proposed and current
  • Average future year, before tax, marginal analysis
  • Initial expected reduction in purchased TMR (lbs. as fed per animal per day): 20
  • Initial Purchased TMR costs ($ per lb. as fed): 0.09
  • Initial additional pounds of nitrogen applied per acre in mid April: 50
  • Initial price per pound of nitrogen ($): 0.81
  • Machinery operating costs, and labor cost for nitrogen application ($ per acre): 7


Table 1. Expected Change in Profit Associated with a Proposed Change in the Farm Business -- Proposed: Mid April Nitrogen Fertilizer Application on Pastures Vs. Current: No Mid April Nitrogen Fertilizer Application on Pastures.

Note: Results reflect initial assumptions.

Analysts acknowledge that they are more comfortable with some assumptions than others with respect to values and their uncertainty. Analysts employ sensitivity analysis to evaluate possible impacts of different assumptions on results (Please see Tables 2 and 3).

Table 2. Expected Change in Profit by Expected Reduction in TMR Purchased by Expected Nitrogen Application Needed.

Table 3. Expected Change in Profit by Expected TMR Price by Expected Nitrogen Price.

To place the results in Tables 1 through 3 in context, consider that net farm income without appreciation per cow, a measure of profit, was $648 and $696 for the same 24 intensive grazing dairy farms in 2010 and 2011, respectively (2012. DFBS: Intensive Grazing Farms New York 2011.). Recall that the analyses above assumed a herd size of 65 cows.

Alternative Analyses

One alternative analysis would examine the situation where increased forage availability from pastures displaces grown feeds assuming milk production goals remain constant. Costs of production associated with grown feeds will be key factors.

A second analysis would examine the situation where increased forage availability from pastures translates to increased milk production assuming TMR feeding for the proposed and current remains constant. Expected increases in milk sold and any related costs will be key factors.

Partial budgeting would still be used, but the analyses would look different from the analysis reported here.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, including developing analysis for your farm business, then please contact John Hanchar.

Table 1: Expected Changes in Total Value of Production (pdf; 86KB)











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