Navigating Nutrient Products

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- Looking to get more out of each pound of fertilizer you use? There's a growing industry eager to meet that need, with companies each year marketing more soil or plant additives to farmers. Some are biologicals, some are synthetics and all aim to boost a crop's ability to unlock and uptake more nutrients from the soil.

It's an appealing concept, especially in this time of skyrocketing fertilizer prices and public scrutiny of chemical inputs, notes Fred Below, a plant physiologist with the University of Illinois, who tests many of these products each year. "It's the first of what we hope is a new generation of products," he said. "I'm encouraged by what I've seen."

But, as with every new industry, growers will see products marketed with more promises than they can keep. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," as Mike Powell, who manages bioscience products for Helena Agri-Enterprises, cautions his customers.

So how can farmers safely navigate this new world of products? And should they? Here are four questions that can help you narrow down what products to try and guide you in implementing them on your farm.

1.WHAT EXACTLY DOES THIS PRODUCT DO?

"Let's face it, there is a lot of slick marketing at play here," Below said. "These products all market to this idea of sustainability and soil health."

Look beyond the advertising and scrutinize the ingredients of any new product, their purpose and any third-party, replicated data you can find, Below and Powell said.

For example, Below has tested a biological product from Pivot Bio called Proven 40, which contains nitrogen-fixing bacteria, designed to live off the carbon released by corn roots, while snagging nitrogen for the corn plant to use. He has also worked with a product called Source, from Sound Ag, containing a compound called maltol lactone. It is absorbed into the plant and expressed by the roots, where it sends out signals energizing nutrient-fixing microbes. "Like giving them an espresso shot," as Below puts it.

Some older nutrient-boosting products are getting a facelift, too. Humic acids, a crucial component of organic matter, have long been known for their ability to feed soil microbes and make soil-applied nutrients more available to plants, Powell noted. But newer versions, like Helena Agri-Enterprises' new engineered humic granule product called Resurge, have been re-formulated to mix more easily into fertilizer blends for better distribution across the field, with the aim of improved efficacy.

The important part of these examples? They all have an identifiable active ingredient and a history of testing, often by third-party academics like Below, which show measurable effects.

2. DO I NEED THAT DONE ON MY FARM?

Once you know what the product does, you can answer Below's most pressing question for farmers: "Do I actually need what this product is supposed to be doing?"

The answer to that almost always comes down to the tried-and-true soil test, Powell notes. With growers scrutinizing every fertilizer input, there's never been a better time to know exactly what your soil's nutrient bank looks like and how it varies throughout a field, he pointed out.

Nutrient efficiency products like humic acids, Proven 40 or Source are at their most useful in places where plants aren't making the most of the applied fertilizer, Below explained. "Every field has areas in it where nitrogen is more easily lost, or the soil doesn't mineralize as much nitrogen," he said. "That's where I see these products helping."

Sound Ag has an algorithm called the Performance Optimizer, designed to explore this, by analyzing soil pH, organic matter and cation exchange capacity (CEC) in a field to create a recommendation on where to apply the product. "So far, about 20% of the acres we look at, we recommend not to apply, either because the soil is saturated with nitrogen and doesn't need more, or the soil pH isn't a fit with Source," said Adam Litle, CEO of Sound Ag. "We think the future is using products like this, instead of the old 'spray and pray,'" he said.

3.WHAT IS YOUR MEASURABLE GOAL?

With companies hungry for data, there are more opportunities to try out new products than ever before, noted Marshall, Illinois, farmer John Yeley. He works with a company called In10t, which partners farmers with companies looking to test their new or developing products. That's how Yeley came across nutrient efficiency products like Proven and Source and figured out which ones worked on his land.

Before you start experimenting, however, it helps to know what your goal is. Depending on the product, it might be less fertilizer applied, while maintaining yields, or increased yield per acre.

With strong commodity prices, it doesn't take too many bushels to pay off an experimental product, which makes this an ideal time to try things out, Below said. "Since most of these products are added to another application pass -- put in furrow or sprayed with fungicides or herbicides -- they have the free ride of application," he noted. Running roughly $10 to $14 per acre, for example, Source only requires a couple of added bushels of corn or soybeans per acre to pay for itself, Litle said.

Powell said Helena Agri-Enterprises aims for customers to see a 3-to-1 or more return on investment from products like Resurge, and Litle said Sound Ag expects to see a 3-to-1 return on Source on the majority of its acres.

Keep your goals to the sensible side, Below added. Don't expect to replace large sections of your fertility program or fix marginal or poor fields with a single product. "None of these products will take a bad production system and make it better," he said. "But they can potentially move the needle up on nutrient-deficient parts of a field where things are otherwise managed properly."

And remember that for nutrient efficiency products to help, the plants must already be healthy enough to actually uptake nutrients. "Drought, floods, temperature or disease could affect that," Below noted. "These products can't save you from everything."

4.HOW ARE YOU GOING TO MEASURE IT?

Remember the essential components of a science experiment -- start small and leave check strips, Below said.

Never throw something on all your acres in the first year. Yeley likes to start out with about 30 acres -- large enough to see an effect, small enough not to be a disaster if it doesn't work. He's heading into his third year of using Source, but he isn't done experimenting, he added. "I've already bought Source to cover all my acres for next year," he said, "But I'll do a check strip in every field."

Replication is your friend, Below agreed. Multiple years of testing will give you a clearer view of how the product fares under a variety of growing conditions.

"No product is going to work every year on every acre," he said. "It's always going to be dependent on the weather." In good growing conditions, for example, the products might appear less useful, as plants are able to find plenty of mineralized nitrogen in the soil. And some products might need consecutive years of use, with cumulative effects, to work best.

If you find a product that truly works on your fields, the experimenting doesn't have to end. Most nutrient efficiency products are currently tested on their own, just for efficacy; Below hopes the next frontier is to look for cooperative effects.

"We've looked at a lot of these products individually," he explained. "Increasingly, the question is less, 'Do they work?' and more 'How do they work together?' The future will be whether they work together and the synergies we can find among them."

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee

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