High Natural Gas Prices Affect Food Production, Local Product Availability in Colorado

The high price of natural gas may not only hit Consumers’ heating bills, it might also affect their grocery bills and the availability of Colorado-grown food. Fertilizer is made in part from natural gas and it’s recent climb in value leads to a number of variables that are impacting the cost of fertilizer and its availability to farmers, according to several Colorado State University Cooperative Extension specialists.

Nitrogen, a primary nutrient plants need from fertilizer, is synthesized as ammonia from natural gas, steam and air to by fertilizer companies. Because natural gas prices are so high, fertilizer plants aren’t producing fertilizer; either because they can’t afford the natural gas, or because it’s being sold off to higher bidders for other uses. This affects farmers and horticulturists including greenhouse vegetable growers.

"It’s a complex issue," said Reagan Waskom, Colorado State Cooperative Extension water specialist. "The high cost of natural gas and the lack of availability mean that some farmers may not be able to get fertilizer and those who do will have to pay more than double their usual fertilizer budget. Most farmers can’t afford that mark up."

But there are alternatives for farmers, says Waskom. He’s one of a team of Colorado State Cooperative Extension specialists and researchers from the university’s Agricultural Experiment Station who have been delving into alternatives to commercial fertilizer for ten years.

Some of the alternatives are simple; others are more complex. But mixing them together can help farmers combat rising fertilizer costs.

"A small investment in a few farm management tools right now will pay off later in the face of high fertilizer costs," said Troy Bauder, Colorado State Cooperative Extension water quality specialist. "For example, growers who apply a routine amount of fertilizer to a field may actually be providing more nutrients than the crop needs. A soil test can help them refine the amount of fertilizer the crop needs and reduce the amount that they apply, saving them money on fertilizer costs."

Some other options include calculating the amount of nitrogen in irrigation water or the nitrogen left in the soil by other Crops, and reducing the amount of fertilizer a crop needs by that number. This strategy, called nitrogen crediting, can even help farmers identify years when a crop doesn’t need fertilizer at all because it has enough nitrogen available to it from other sources that already exist.

Raj Khosla, Colorado State Cooperative Extension agronomy specialist, suggests balancing fertilizer by spending more on fertilizer for fields that usually produce more than for fields that usually have lower crop yields. Other options suggested by the team of researchers includes fertilizing with livestock manure, improving fertilizer applications for more efficiency, and paying close attention to water management when irrigating a field to get the maximum benefits from fertilizer.

More information on these options is available through From the Ground Up, a newsletter produced by Colorado State Cooperative Extension specialists, at http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/SoilCrop/extension/Newsletters/news.html or by contacting the local Colorado State Cooperative Extension office, usually listed in the county government section of the local phone book.