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THOMPSON, N.D. -- Nelson Farms, near Thompson, N.D., is a third-generation farm started by Herbert Nelson in the 1940s. Fertilizer has been used to feed the farm's crops for a number of years.

Chuck Nelson (clockwise from front) and his sons, Jason and Casey, operate Chuck Nelson Farms. (Son Aaron not pictured.) Fertilizer and fuel inputs are becoming an increasing focus of management on Chuck Nelson Farms of Thompson, North Dakota. Mikkel Pates, Agweek staff

THOMPSON, N.D. -- Nelson Farms, near Thompson, N.D., is a third-generation farm started by Herbert Nelson in the 1940s. Fertilizer has been used to feed the farm's crops for a number of years.

Nelson Farms, with more than 70 years of farming experience, currently raises wheat, barley, oats, sugar beets, soybeans, pinto beans, black turtle beans and corn.

Herbert Nelson and his wife, Gladys, started farming near Thompson around 1949. Chuck Nelson, son of Herbert and Gladys, and his wife, Pam, started farming in the 1970s. The couple raised three sons, Jason, Aaron and Casey.

Jason and Aaron help out with the Nelson Farms operation and have farms of their own near Thompson. Jason started farming in 1996. Aaron started in 2000.

Casey, a sophomore at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., plans to help with the family farm after college.


Nelson Farms has one full-time hired hand. During harvest, additional part-time workers are hired.


"A soil test is taken in the early fall for each of the fields, sometime in September or October. This soil test gives us the choice of up to three different crops that can be planted on the field, each with a different fertilizer need," Chuck Nelson says. "By the late fall, we know what to plant on the field in the spring. We apply fertilizer as needed and try to put on the crops that use a similar brand of that fertilizer if we don't plant what was originally planned. We lose about 10 percent of our fertilizer in the spring from leaching and other things."

Nelson Farms relies on soil tests and projected yields to determine the fertilizer needed for each crop.

Soybeans usually have 35- to 40-bushel yields, though each field varies a little. Sugar beets have much deeper roots and usually need a 2- to 4-foot soil sample. These are examples of what Nelson Farms uses when deciding on fertilizers.

When and how often Nelson Farms applies fertilizer to the fields depends on the weather and crops. Nelson Farms' wide crop variety influences the fertilizer usage on daily. Both a crop's variety and condition is used to determine when and what kind of fertilizer is needed.

"When we spray depends on what we are doing," Chuck Nelson says. "We start with a starter fertilizer during planting. We start spraying the beets in the spring about two weeks after planting. Pre-emergent chemical, with fertilizer and water mixtures, is applied to our beans and we use chemicals for weeds on the grains. After that, we go back to spraying our beets."

GPS technology has allowed farmers a variety of ways to apply fertilizer. The Nelson Farms crew applies fertilizer to most of their fields with a ground sprayer. They hire aerial spray companies for the fields for which they are unable to apply fertilizer.


"We do a lot of shifting and have to clean out our equipment often. We us a tank cleaner so we don't harm other crops with excess chemical and use a triple rinse tank system," Chuck Nelson says. "We use a self-propelled Apache sprayer for all our crops and put about 300 to 400 hours a year on it."


One person can handle the entire spraying process when applying fertilizer to the fields. According to Chuck Nelson, fertilizer application is a lot easier and faster with two people. With two individuals helping feed the crop, one can run the machinery while the other moves trucks around the field.

"The time it takes to cover a field varies on how fast you are going," Chuck Nelson says. "We probably do about 75 acres an hour for the fungicide on edible beans, and with a Nitro-Bar, we probably do about 50 acres an hour."

Nelson Farms uses numerous brands of fertilizer and fertilizer mixtures on the crops. Nelson Farms' fertilizer comes from three main suppliers: CHS, Simplot and United Agri Products.

Each fall, anhydrous grade 82-0-0, mixed nitrogen blends, phosphorus and potassium are put on the fields. In spring, liquid starter blends are applied. If Nelson Farms has not applied a fertilizer at all during the fall, a mix blend plus a starter blend will be applied in the spring.

"It's not good to cheat in the fertilizer world by not using the recommended amount or cutting back," Aaron Nelson says. "You will only hurt yourself and your yields in the long run."

Edible beans, such as pinto and black turtle, receive a liquid fertilizer with a pre-emergent chemical that gets worked into the soil several times before planting.


"Small grains, such as wheat, receive a top dressing of nitrogen at the four to five leaf stages. We put 10 to 15 gallons of 28-0-0 or liquid Nitrogen, which is 28 percent nitrogen on and use a Nitro-Bar, also called a streamer, to apply the fertilizer," Chuck Nelson says. "The Nitro-Bar is a nozzle that we use to spray top dressing with. It is put on to our sprayer boom. This drops the fertilizer straight down and doesn't break it up, which minimizes burning of the small grain leaves."

Other crops, such as edible beans, do not receive a top dressing, a fungicide and application of harvest booster and water mixture is applied. Harvest booster usually is mixed with 10 gallons of water for every acre being sprayed, according to Chuck Nelson. A harvest booster is a mixture of micronutrients and fertilizer to help improve yields.

"The micronutrients are beginning to become a new and improved thing for the crops," Aaron Nelson says. "It's important and might bring you above your yields."

Applying fungicide controls the risk of crop disease. Harvest boosters give crops the option of producing better crop yields.

"When the corn is at full tassel, which is when the corn has stings out at the top, we apply Headline fungicide and a harvest booster," Chuck Nelson says. "This year, we had to apply it by air because the corn was too high for us to do it."


According to Chuck Nelson and Nelson Farms, fertilizer prices have changed dramatically in the last six to 12 months.

A new closed-container system for fertilizer has helped cut down costs. The fertilizer comes in sealed 16-gallon kegs. Farmers can return used kegs with excess chemical and get a refund.


"Today, we are handling chemicals safer on the farm and the chemicals themselves are being handled safer with closed containers," Chuck Nelson says. "Our equipment overall has improved as well. We have safer handling processes and are much more educated and aware of safety measures. We can do more mixing and blending of the fertilizers now, but we still have to be careful as some will react with each other and turn to mush."

Jar tests are used to determine the compatibility of different fertilizers. A jar test is where the farmer takes small portions of each chemical and adds them to a small jar, similar to a canning jar. The jar then is shaken to see how the chemicals react with each other and if the mixture can be used on the fields.

By using the jar test method, Nelson Farms can determine if there will be chemical reactions and if the chemicals are compatible.

If a mixture turns to sludge or mud, it can not be used. Although if the chemicals separate, the mixture still can be used as long as the sprayer pump has good agitation and keeps the chemicals mixed in suspension while spraying.

Chemical mixtures need to be mixed and proportioned out within a spray tank before spraying occurs and the mixture should be applied in a timely fashion to avoid curdling. Some chemicals have to be added using a specific order or sequence when mixing them together.

"You can't just guess. Chemical representatives have to be asked," Chuck Nelson says. "For example, for sugar beets we put about six different chemicals together for our mixture and they all need to be added in the proper sequence depending on the chemicals."

Some chemicals that are granulated have to go through a pre-slurrey, which is the process where small chemical granules are mixed with water in empty jugs and shook until the water absorbs into the granules.

"Granules will hang in the sprayer or stick and may contaminate the next crop if a mixture is not mixed thoroughly or the water does not absorb into the granules enough," Chuck Nelson says. "Because we use selective herbicides that will only work on certain crops, we have to be aware of what we are doing."

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