What’s in the Bag?
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What’s in the Bag?

Understanding which fertilizers will give you the best results and return on investment

Fertilizer. Everyone knows what it is, but not everyone realizes how much of an impact it can have on a lawn care business’s bottom line. Some business owners are tempted to stick with the same fertilizer they’ve always used simply out of habit. Others may only look at the price per bag and try to save money by going with the cheapest alternative.

“With fertilizer, you get what you pay for,” says Andy Drohen, senior regional sales manager in the Northeastern U.S. and Eastern Canada for Koch Turf & Ornamental (Koch). “There are good reasons why one bag of fertilizer costs more than another, and it’s important to know exactly what you’re getting. Ideally, you want to find a fertilizer that offers optimal results and makes good economic sense for your business.”

The fertilizer supply chain

To understand what goes into a bag of fertilizer, it’s necessary to go back through the supply chain. Input suppliers mine minerals from the ground to make phosphorous or potassium fertilizers. Other companies manufacture nitrogen (N) fertilizers, such as ammonia- or urea-based products. Then, there are companies like Koch, which takes those products and modifies them into “enhanced efficiency fertilizers” (EEFs) by adding stabilizers or coatings to create stabilized and slow- and controlled-release fertilizer technologies.

From there, these inputs go to blenders or formulators who blend them together to make the final bagged fertilizer product. Distributors purchase those bags of fertilizer and then sell and deliver them to end users – residential and commercial lawn care companies, sports turf managers, golf courses and other sites.

“Throughout the supply chain process, there are a number of questions that must be answered,” says Eric Miltner, Ph.D., research agronomist for Koch. “Is this going to be all readily-available, quick-release fertilizer? Or will it include some enhanced efficiency technologies, like the ones we’ve developed at Koch? Is 30 percent of the nitrogen going to come from an EEF? One-hundred percent? Some percentage in between? And, what about the analysis? What’s the NPK ratio, based on what’s appropriate for the site of application?”

From bags to riches

To answer those questions, Koch’s Drohen describes a hypothetical scenario comparing three different bags of fertilizer with three different analyses. The four major components in these bags of fertilizer are urea, Koch XCU® slow-release fertilizer, potash and something called “filler,” typically limestone, which offers little to no nutritional value to turf. Each fertilizer will be applied at the same typical lawn-care-application rate of one pound of N per 1,000 square feet of turf.

“The first bag has a 16-0-8 analysis and is the cheapest at $13.90*,” Drohen says. “But, it’s 50 percent filler. At 16 percent nitrogen content, we’d have to put down 6.3 pounds of material per thousand square feet to get that desired rate of one pound of nitrogen. What does that mean? It means this 50-lb bag is going to cover 8,000 square feet, costing approximately $1.74 per square foot. To cover 200 acres, you’d need 1,089 bags at a total cost of just over $15,000.”

As the amount of nutrients in a bag of fertilizer increases – and the amount of filler decreases – the price of that bag also goes up. However, since those fertilizers contain a higher percentage of N, it’s possible to use fewer bags of material to apply the same one pound of N.

“If we increase the nitrogen and potassium to a 24-0-12 formulation – 24 percent nitrogen – the per bag price increases to $16.50,” Drohan explains. “However, you’ll use just 725 bags to cover that same 200 acres, which would cost right under $12,000. You’re saving $3,000 by applying fertilizer with more nitrogen content per bag. If we increase the nitrogen and potassium by another 50 percent to a 32-0-16 formulation which contains no filler at all, it’s going to cost $19.20 per bag. But – you’ll only need 545 bags to cover those 200 acres for a total cost of just over $10,000.

“So, while it’s the most expensive of the three fertilizers in our example, you can purchase fewer bags to apply the same amount of nitrogen over the same area. And, purchasing and storing fewer bags means you’ll also save on freight and labor, giving lawn care businesses the opportunity to perform other revenue-enhancing services.”

Better fertilizers, better results, happier customers

It’s clear that higher quality fertilizers with less filler may be more expensive per bag, but can be far more economical in the long run. But, there’s yet another way that Koch’s enhanced efficiency fertilizer technology can positively impact lawn care businesses.

“Our research has compared the nitrogen uptake from turf that’s had urea applied and from turf that’s had our XCU slow-release fertilizer applied,” Miltner says. “Our data shows that following an application of 0.9 pounds of N per 1,000 square feet of non-amended urea, the clippings we accumulated over nine weeks contained 0.36 pounds of that applied nitrogen. Clippings from the turf that had 0.9 pounds of N per 1,000 applied as XCU contained 0.6 pounds of nitrogen.”

As the percent of XCU in the blend increases, the turf’s N uptake rate increases as well. And, better N uptake means healthier, more attractive turf that generates positive word of mouth from customers.

“EEFs really allow you to optimize the value of the blend,” Miltner adds. “Greater nitrogen uptake efficiency and better longevity means lawn care companies can save on fertilizer, decrease freight costs and reallocate labor for other uses.

“All of our data shows that cost per bag doesn’t correlate to a fertilizer’s true value. Higher quality blends containing less filler and more EEFs actually deliver higher value for your fertilizer dollar.”

*All prices mentioned within this article are for demonstration purposes only. Actual prices may vary.