Choosing the Right Fertilizer

With spring just around the corner, it’s a great time to evaluate your current fertilization program based on past performance and turf needs.

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Lawn care business owners face many tough decisions every day. From creating a business plan to hiring employees to purchasing equipment, there are challenges and opportunities around every corner. Every investment, large and small, has an impact on your cost of doing business and, in turn, your profitability. And while selecting a fertilizer may seem like a fairly straightforward decision, it’s actually trickier than you may think.

“Some business owners are tempted to stick with the same fertilizer they’ve always used simply out of habit,” says Eric Miltner, Ph.D., a research agronomist for Koch Turf & Ornamental. “Others may only look at the price per bag and try to save money by going with the less expensive alternative. However, with fertilizer, you get what you pay for. There are good reasons why one bag of fertilizer costs more than another and it’s important to know exactly what you’re getting.”

With the busy spring season just around the corner, it’s a great time to evaluate your current fertilization program based on past performance and turf needs. If the fertilizer you’ve been using shows signs of poor performance, including inadequate turf color and growth, your customers’ lawns could be more susceptible to a variety of environmental stresses, like insect damage, disease and weed infestation.

“It’s also a good idea to evaluate your fertilizer program from a business perspective,” Miltner says. “By incorporating a more efficient fertilizer technology into your program, you can gain not only agronomic advantages, but multiple economic advantages as well.”

What’s in the Bag?

If you decide it’s time to make a switch, how do you choose a different fertilizer that both performs well and makes financial sense? First, you need to understand what exactly goes into a bag of fertilizer.

Input suppliers mine minerals from the ground to make phosphorous or potassium fertilizers. Other companies manufacture nitrogen fertilizers, such as ammonia- or urea-based products. Then there are companies that take those products and modify them into enhanced-efficiency fertilizers (EEFs) by adding stabilizers or coatings to create stabilized, slow-release and controlled-release fertilizer technologies.

From there, those fertilizers go to blenders or formulators who blend them together to make the final bagged product. That product may be a readily available quick-release fertilizer or it may contain enhanced-efficiency technologies. The blender or formulator must decide what percentage of nitrogen in the bag comes from an EEF or some other source, as well as the fertilizer’s nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK) ratio. Distributors purchase the resulting bags of fertilizer, then sell and deliver them to end users—residential and commercial lawn care companies, sports turf managers, golf courses and the like.

“Lawn care companies tend to rely on quick-release nitrogen fertilizers with some EEF components,” Miltner says. “However, research indicates that EEF nitrogen sources should make up at least 50 percent of the nitrogen in the blend to truly realize the benefits they provide, and many quick-release fertilizers don’t meet those specifications. Blends that include higher percentages of nitrogen-rich EEFs offer more efficient, high-quality nutrition. Low-cost fertilizers typically contain less nitrogen and more filler, often limestone, which has little to no nutritional value.”

The percentage of EEF technology in the bag also affects how long a fertilizer blend continues to feed a lawn. Blends that contain 50 percent or more EEF are better able to extract a fertilizer’s full longevity. Combining enhanced uptake efficiency with better longevity leads to a lower cost per days of greening.

“Research has shown that fertilizer blends that incorporate EEFs have improved nitrogen-use efficiency,” Miltner adds. “In other words, the higher the percentage of EEF in the blend, the more nitrogen the turf takes up. That leads to healthier, thicker lawns that are better equipped to stand up to stress.”

Real-Life Economic Advantages

Unsurprisingly, as the amount of nutrients in a bag of fertilizer increases and the amount of filler decreases, the bag’s price goes up. However, since those fertilizers contain a higher percentage of nitrogen, it’s possible to use fewer bags of material to apply the same amount of nitrogen to your customers’ lawns. Purchasing, storing and applying fewer bags of fertilizer also means you save on freight and labor. And because your employees are spending less time applying fertilizer, they can perform other revenue-enhancing services.

“Many lawn care businesses sell service plans based on the number of visits they make to a customer’s site per year,” Miltner says. “Rather than cutting back on their visits, business owners can focus on weed treatments or insect treatments on those remaining visits. That helps their customers’ lawns look even better while also improving labor efficiency and profit potential.”

Scientific Plant Service experienced these advantages firsthand. The Maryland-based company offers plant health care, commercial and residential fertilization, and insect, weed and disease control, among other services. About 10 years ago, the company switched to POLYON, a controlled-release EEF from Koch.

Switching to POLYON “eliminated a lot—a lot of bag handling, a lot of wear and tear on our trucks, and hours on the spreaders,” says Brian Haga, president of Scientific Plant Service. “We’re putting down less fertilizer because we’re using a more efficient blend.”

Scientific Plant Service used to apply fertilizer twice in the fall—once in September and again in mid-October. Now the company applies 0.9 pounds in the spring and 1.5 pounds in the fall on residential properties. Its commercial and sports field customers get a single 2.5-pound application in the fall. Overall, switching to an EEF freed up four to five weeks of work for 75 percent of the company’s staff.

“As you can see from Scientific Plant Service’s example, a fertilizer’s cost per bag doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story,” Miltner says. “Higher quality blends with EEFs in higher percentages may cost more per bag, but they deliver higher value for the dollar. And because the turf is getting nutrients over longer periods of time, these blends can also lead to greater customer satisfaction.”