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Agronomic Services — News Release

FRIDAY, JUNE 30, 2000

Regional agronomist helps cotton farmers cut costs

HERTFORD — Four years ago, cotton prices were 85 to 90 cents per pound, and growers didn’t worry too much about the cost of fertilizer. Now with prices 25 to 30 cents lower, farmers are looking for ways to economize and reduce production costs.

Using optimal rates of lime and fertilizer is one way to cut costs. Many cotton growers in the northeastern counties of the state turn to N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Regional Agronomist Wayne Nixon when they need advice on crop fertilization. Nixon draws from a rich background of agricultural education and experience.

A life-long resident of Perquimans County, he was born and raised on his parents’ farm in Hertford. He began his own farming operation there in 1983 after completing graduate studies at N.C. State University. Four times he has been the county peanut production champion.

Chuck Brothers first sought Nixon’s advice in 1998 shortly after becoming farm manager for Newsome Farms. His operation comprises 3,100 acres of cotton, peanuts, wheat and soybeans in Bertie, Hertford and Northampton counties.

"Since Wayne has been helping us, we’ve seen a big difference in our liming bills. We’ve been able to cut them by about 60 percent. We did it by customizing our fertilizer applications to meet specific crop and soil needs."

Newsome Farms had a history of using ammonium sulfate as a sidedress broadcast fertilizer on its 1,700 acres of cotton. The ammonium sulfate, in turn, was acidifying the soil and making it necessary to apply large quantities of lime. Furthermore, a complete array of micronutrients was applied in its starter fertilizer.

After sitting down with Brothers and examining the soil test reports, Nixon suggested that the farm custom-blend a fertilizer specifically suited to its needs. For the preplant broadcast fertilizer, he recommended a 7-0-40 blend-based on 1 part ammonium sulfate and 1 part potassium chloride (0-0-60). This blend provides the entire 20 to 25 pounds of sulfur that the NCDA&CS Agronomic Division recommends for row crops.

Nixon and Brothers then settled on a starter fertilizer containing nitrogen, some phosphorus, some sulfur, and only those micronutrients recommended on the soil test report. Nixon then suggested that any remaining nitrogen needed by the crop be put out as a liquid sidedressing. Nitrogen applied as a 30 percent urea-based liquid is much less acidifying than ammonium sulfate.

This strategy saved money in many ways.

First, costs were lowered by eliminating phosphorus from the preplant broadcast fertilizer. Soils in the eastern part of the state tend to have high levels of phosphorus, so there is little need to add more of this expensive component. Nixon suggested adding only enough phosphorus to the starter fertilizer to help plants through the critical early weeks after planting.

Second, since the custom blend did not lower soil pH like the ammonium sulfate previously used, two-thirds less lime was needed.

In 1997, Newsome Farms applied about 450 tons of lime to its cotton acreage. After switching to the customized fertilizer blend, only 150 tons were needed?an estimated savings of $14 per acre from lime alone.

Third, when soil test reports indicated that zinc was the only micronutrient the crop was lacking, zinc was added to the starter fertilizer. This approach was significantly less expensive than adding a complete micronutrient formulation.

Tim Newsome, owner of Newsome Farms, was obviously pleased with the savings.

"We’ve made lots of changes over the past few years, and if Wayne keeps bringing good ideas, we’ll keep changing," Newsome said.

Nixon has also helped Umphlett Brothers’ Farm in Gates County save money on production costs.

The Umphletts -- Leon, Randolph, and Leon’s son Robbie -- grow 3,300 acres of row crops, 2,150 of which are planted in cotton this year. Their farm is a model of precision agriculture -- from GPS sampling, to radar-controlled sprayers, to intricately detailed farm record keeping. They know what every input costs and how it affects production. They strive to be exact because they know it saves money.

"I normally take 700 to 800 soil samples every year, and I used to send them all to a private lab until I met Mr. Nixon," says Robbie Umphlett. "Now I send them to the Department of Agriculture’s lab in Raleigh. That in itself saved us a lot of money."

But the savings didn’t stop there. Nixon showed Umphlett how to interpret soil test reports and use the information to develop a more precise fertilizer application strategy. It paid off.

The Umphletts now use a preplant broadcast application of 0-0-60 on cotton every two out of three years. In the third year, they use a fertilizer blend that provides a little additional sulfur. At planting, they inject a starter fertilizer containing reduced levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, zinc and sulfur. The Umphletts have been able to reduce the amount of sulfur they apply after learning the soil contains reserves due to its organic matter content.

Robbie Umphlett estimates these measures, along with tissue testing to monitor boron, have saved the farm $10 per acre. Saving this money - roughly $21,500 - has meant other improvements can be made to the farming operation.

Nixon’s work gives him personal satisfaction. "I enjoy the challenge of improving agricultural efficiency and protecting the environment," he says. "And I learn a lot from growers in the process.”

Nixon is the NCDA&CS regional agronomist serving Bertie, Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Gates, Hertford, Pasquotank, and Perquimans counties. He can be reached by phone at (252) 426-7210 or by email at

The Field Services Section of the NCDA&CS Agronomic Division has 14 regional agronomists located throughout the state. These agronomists are available to visit or consult with growers in their regions who need help taking agronomic samples, adjusting fertilizer programs, pinpointing nutrient deficiencies or toxicities, identifying nematode problems, or interpreting agronomic reports. For more information or for the name of the regional agronomist for your area, call J. Kent Messick at (919) 733-2655 or check out the website at:


Last Update July 29, 2008


NCDA&CS Agronomic Services Division, Colleen M. Hudak-Wise, Ph.D., Director
Mailing Address: 1040 Mail Service Center, Raleigh NC 27699-1040
Physical Address: 4300 Reedy Creek Road, Raleigh NC 27607-6465
Phone: (919) 733-2655; FAX: (919) 733-2837

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