Farm advice: Planning fertiliser use in spring

By: Bala Tikkisetty

Regional Council sustainable agriculture advisor Bala Tikkisetty shares some advice on planning fertiliser use in the spring

With a refreshed National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management around the corner, there’s increasing pressure for farmers to improve nutrient management in their farming systems.


As the soil starts warming up over the next few weeks, farmers will be preparing to fertilise their paddocks. Finding that balance between getting best bang for buck while protecting economic and environmental bottom lines is critical for farmers and requires advice from their fertiliser reps and consultants.

That’s because healthy soils are a balance of biological, physical, and chemical properties, and are a dynamic mixture of minerals, organic residues, and living micro and macro-organisms – all of which support farm production and provide various ecosystem services.

As there are a range of risks when applying fertiliser and strategies to help you avoid them, it’s recommended all farmers have a nutrient budget and a nutrient management plan for their properties and discuss their situation with their fertiliser rep.

There are a range of tools to help practice sustainable nutrient management. Nutrient budgeting is widely accepted as the appropriate first step in managing nutrient use and it’s also the preferred tool for evaluating the environmental impact of farm management practices.

Overseer, a computer decision support model is being used to advise on nutrient management and greenhouse gas emissions. It predicts what happens to the nutrients that are brought onto the farm in the form of fertilisers and supplementary feed in the same way that a financial budget can track money.

When doing nutrient budgets, bear in mind recent soil quality monitoring results (in Waikato) that reveal high fertility and compaction remain problems on dairy and some dry-stock sites. Another issue to consider is nitrate leaching. Plants need nitrogen (N) for healthy leaf growth.

But N is an extremely mobile nutrient. If more nitrogenous fertiliser is applied than plants can take up, most of the unused nitrogen ends up leaching down through the soil into groundwater. Sometimes N will also be lost to waterways as runoff and some is always released back into the air as gas. The amount of N leaching from pastures can be reduced by: 

  • timing fertiliser application to avoid periods when plant uptake of N will be low, such as when soils are saturated, during heavy rain, colder periods, and times of low soil temperatures
  • applying N fertiliser in split dressings (as many split doses as possible)
  • irrigating farm dairy effluent to a large enough area
  • adjusting fertiliser policy for effluent irrigated areas to account for the nutrient value of effluent
  • using fenced wetlands and well-managed open drains as nutrient traps.The nutrient phosphorus behaves very differently to N because it binds with the soil and only dissolves slowly in water over time. This means it doesn’t readily leach to groundwater. But it can damage the health of waterways through soil erosion and surface runoff into water. Farmers can reduce the amount of phosphorus runoff by keeping Olsen P to optimum agronomic levels. Other tips include:
  • following the Codes of Practice for FertMark and SpreadMark
  • applying fertiliser when the grass is in an active growing phase
  • leaving a grassed buffer strip between paddock and waterway – the strip filters the phosphorus before the runoff reaches the water
  • controlling runoff from tracks, races, feed, and stand-off pads. A clear assessment of fertiliser requirements will both improve economic returns from pasture and help avoid contamination of ground and surface water with nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus. In New Zealand, the common nitrogenous fertilisers are urea (46% N), ammonium sulphate (21% N), DAP (18% N), and calcium ammonium nitrate (27% N). The form of nitrogenous fertiliser best used depends not only on the cost per unit N but also on the overall efficiency of the fertiliser N. 

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