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Innovative, full-service agricultural retailer gets most of its dry bulk fertilizer applied in the spring.

Fall fertilizer applications – especially of phosphorus (P) – may be the norm throughout most of the Midwest, but the emphasis is squarely on spring applications over a wide swath of central west Tennessee serviced by First Farmers Co-op.

“Less than 10 percent of our dry bulk fertilizer is applied in the fall because most of our customers favor spring fertilizer applications,” says Mike Clayton, sales and marketing manager for the Tennessee-based co-op. “Applying fertilizer in the spring is a unique tradition in our service area.”

Many First Farmers Co-op customers farm a high percentage of river bottom ground, and they don’t want to risk losing fall-applied fertilizer to winter and early spring flooding, Clayton explains. “We have to move quickly in the spring,” Clayton adds. “We make our dry fertilizer applications either just before or just after planting – our fertilizer trucks are often bumping the planters.”

Established in 1935, First Farmers Co-op just celebrated its 80th anniversary last year. The company provides full-service agronomy services in four Tennessee counties – Henderson, Chester, Decatur and Hardin – as well as seven other surrounding counties. The co-op has grown rapidly, from annual revenues of 12 to 14 million dollars 10 years ago to more than 40 million dollars today. There are four corporate offices in Lexington, Decaturville, Henderson and Savannah, Tennessee, with satellite facilities throughout the service area.

Innovative Nutrient Management Plans
The Co-op’s nutrient management plans are return-on-investment (ROI) driven with economics being a key consideration. “Like farmers everywhere, our customers have growing concerns about nutrient run-off and increasing government regulations,” says P.R. Morris, agronomist with First Farmers Co-op. “We challenge our farmers to take a proactive approach to these concerns.”

Morris cites high adoption of no-till and minimum-till production practices and widespread use of grass filter strips along field edges, waterways and creeks by his customers, as well as aggressive planting of cover crops. “We don’t want to apply any more fertilizer than what’s needed,” the agronomist says. “But we also want to lower input costs while keeping yields up.”

To maximize efficiency and plant uptake of phosphorus, for instance, a lot of the co-op’s customers use AVAIL® Phosphorus Fertilizer Enhancer, a product from Verdesian Life Sciences. According to Morris, 90 percent of the phosphorus fertilizer applied by First Farmers Co-op is pre-treated with AVAIL during the blending process.

“We’ve had to educate our customers about the role that phosphorus plays in crop development and why it’s important to protect that element from getting tied up in the soil,” says Trevor Smith, another co-op agronomist. “Our test plot data gets the customer’s attention when we show them increased corn ear size, enhanced root systems, larger stalk diameters and yield increases when AVAIL is applied.”

Reduced P Application Rates
Smith adds that soil tests often show adequate or even high levels of phosphorus, while tissue testing show a P deficiency. “Just because you have high phosphorus levels in the soil doesn’t mean that phosphorus is getting taken up by the crops,” he says. “Use of AVAIL keeps that phosphorus from getting fixed in the soil and makes more of the nutrient available for plant uptake.

Because of this increased phosphorus efficiency, the co-op is sometimes able to recommend reduced rates of applied phosphorus to their customers. According to Mike Clayton, these reduced rates help save customers money but still help ensure high yield potential.

Jason Cherry, is a corn and soybean farmer with Essary and Cherry Farms in Milledgeville, Tennessee, an operation that includes his father in law and brother in law. “We have been able to reduce applied phosphorus rates by 15 percent when using AVAIL,” Cherry says.

“Our soils have high levels of phosphorus, but we knew that high levels of the nutrient were getting tied-up in the soil,” Cherry explains. “We began using AVAIL four or five years ago for this reason – to get more phosphorus into the plants.”

Cherry says that AVAIL-treated phosphorus on corn has noticeably larger root systems, and yields have improved, especially during dry years. “Roots are the foundation of plant growth, and we’re convinced that larger root systems make the corn less susceptible to environmental stress. Between the reduced phosphorus rates and increased yields we are seeing with AVAIL, the ROI for this product is very good, in our opinion.”
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