Micros Tools Take Off
A brave new micronutrient “frontier” is proving more successful than perhaps many anticipated.
January 23, 2012
Spurred by strong crop prices and some regional weather delays, more growers in 2011 added micronutrients and enhancements to their fertility mix and liked them — a lot. Sales of these products reached record levels last year at many suppliers, levels that are affirming and encouraging major production expansions of manufacturing facilities.
Dr. Julian Smith, domestic sales director with Brandt Consolidated, reports that elevated commodity prices enabled growers to try a few approaches they may have been “a little shy of” in other market conditions. But they were very pleasantly surprised with the yield gains brought by micronutrient products.
Another factor contributing to the new use pattern was the late start some producers in the Midwest had to face. They wanted to push crops along a little faster, says Smith, and found foliar nutrients did an excellent job. In non-delayed areas, the materials fit in nicely with already established glyphosate-tolerant crop spray schedules.
In particular, Brandt saw a huge increase in sales of its new Brandt Smart System line of micronutrients, which are designed for spraying with glyphosate. Sales of Brandt Smart Trio (zinc, manganese, boron) and Brand Smart Manganese were particularly strong with large acreage corn, cotton and soybean growers. “There was a huge uptake in the use of these products because they allowed micronutrients to be mixed with glyphosate and other herbicides and incorporated into weed resistance programs, which brings a lot of new efficiencies to foliar application and spraying,” says Smith.
The Brandt Smart System line has also expanded to include straight zinc formulations. Brandt Manni-Plex, the company’s flagship line of foliar micronutrients, is also being enhanced; it is now available in a new boron formulation as well as a new calcium form. Also just released is a boron-molybdenum combination called Manni-Plex B Moly, which can aid in nitrogen assimilation in a host of crops including soybeans, cotton and peanuts, as well as corn and small grains. In general, Smith feels the micronutrient business is now trending away from offering crop-specific blends to products that provide multi-target coverage.
Additional nutrient issues were spotted last year. Dr. Dan Froehlich, agronomist and new product development lead with The Mosaic Co., expressed concern that the zinc and sulfur deficiencies observed the past few seasons continued to stand out. Drew Taylor, director of Tiger-Sul product management and international sales, reports that the company’s customers in the upper Midwest and Northeast particularly felt the impact.
One key fact emerged, though; fields that received adequate levels of these elements did not “roll up as early in the day” under high temperatures. The corn plants functioned longer, leading to 15 to 25 bushels per acre higher yields than corn without adequate sulfur and zinc, says Mosaic’s Froehlich. Unfortunately, the drought was severe enough in some areas that the plants could not express their yield potential even when balanced crop nutrition was supplied.
Froehlich reports that Mosaic’s MicroEssentials SZ continues to be a popular item with corn growers, as they begin to understand the significance of having two forms of sulfur later in the season and into subsequent seasons. He emphasizes early planting increases the need for supplying additional nutrients immediately — even though they may be in present the soil, they may not available until the ground warms up.
He also is finding that “growers are rapidly adopting the use of sulfur and micronutrients. They don’t want to limit yields when corn prices are high and land rents continue to climb.”
Fall-applied sulfur was gaining more traction last year, says Tiger-Sul’s Taylor. The company has been promoting this approach to application timing for the past few seasons. “It’s become a growth area with soil-applied Tiger-90CR,” he says. Another growth area has been the firm’s sulfur/zinc combination products; Tiger Micronutrients Zinc 18% and Zinc 4%, also useful in fall programs.
Other Solid Performers
Other products carved a unique spot for themselves in last season’s fertility programs. Wolf Trax DDP Micronutrients (zinc, boron, copper, manganese, iron and calcium) also were in high demand in 2011. With the uncertainty in the market about supplies of granular zinc, many dealers switched to the product line as a fertilizer coating, says Kerry Green, managing director. New customers liked how easily the DDP Technology coated dry fertilizer when added to the blend — as well as the quality and consistency of the blend, he reports. Also crowd pleasers: The products’ lower use rates and lower handling and storage costs.
PROTINUS Seed Nutrition proved to be a valuable Wolf Trax product, especially for growers in western Canada and the upper Great Plains where cool, wet conditions threatened early development. “Growers remarked on the robust early growth of their crop,” says Green. Seedlings as diverse as corn, wheat, canola, and soybeans were better able to withstand the early season stress thanks to their larger size and longer, more developed root systems. PROTINUS has shown consistent yield benefits of 3% to 6%, in a large number of crops across a wide geography.
Yet one more nutrient problem came to light last season. Froehlich started to see boron deficiencies show up on fields that were under severe water stress. Indeed, Greg Hunter, director of agriculture sales for the Americas and worldwide development at Rio Tinto Minerals, said drought in the South and East posed problems for his company’s boron customers. “But we probably heard more than ever in 2011 about yield enhancement with boron programs,” he says. “I think that’s tied to high commodity prices. Growers are doing everything they can to increase yields.”
Rio Tinto Mineral’s flagship product is Granubor 2, designed for blending in pre-plant and other bulk, blended fertilizer applications.
One vital project Rio Tinto Minerals spent a lot of time working on last year was understanding the solubility of different boron materials. Hunter points out plants cannot absorb nutrients in the same ways that scientists have historically measured solubility, say, in cold or hot water. “The plant absorbs in a soil solution. We were surprised and pleased that our products perform at the top of the solubility scale,” he says.
Hunter cautions that just because a nutrient is identified in a soil analysis it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s soluble or available to the plant. The only way to tell outside of yield is tissue testing, “while efficiency and utilization gains come from nutrient availability in a soluble form, if a plant needs a unit of boron, it needs a unit of boron,” he says. He also points out that a plant cannot utilize all nutrients available unless they’re balanced.
Last season’s encouraging results with micronutrients will actually help growers and dealers deal with a possible challenge this year. Brandt’s Smith notes that at presstime, ammonium polyphosphate prices were running very high and phosphoric acid was in short supply. That means growers may not be able to do a starter fertilizer application — so any starter zinc usually put on then, particularly in the Corn Belt, wouldn’t go down. Growers may have to revert to foliar materials to get zinc to the growing crop.
But they shouldn’t worry. “Good, sensible use of foliar nutrient tools can genuinely enhance production systems,” says Smith.” It’s a lesson well-learned in the course of 2011.”
Product pricing should not be an issue for growers anymore, believes Smith. “For the last two or three years, with the widespread use of these materials, growers have been able to establish — not just mentally, but mathematically — a very strong cost/benefit ratio. What was once viewed as an add-on or last-minute add-on is now viewed as an essential production component,” he says.
Some companies will be continuing strong proactive efforts to educate growers about the value of micronutrients. Winfield Solutions, for example, offers its Answer Plot sessions and Micronutrient Grower Seminars.
At the gatherings, the company shares results from multiple-site-replicated research. “We have demonstrated that well-timed micronutrient applications will give the grower an acceptable ROI,” says Tim Eyrich, manager, plant nutrition development.
Winfield has also developed the NutriSolutions tissue sampling program to assess macro and micronutrient needs. This program enables the company to gain a very detailed profile of nutrient issues affecting a grower’s crops. “We have insights across several crop growth stages, so we can see the whole crop year and at what stages each nutrient became an issue,” Eyrich explains. Staff agronomists can then recommend the AgriSolutions micronutrient mix or single-element product a grower needs.
To educate growers and dealers about how essential nutrient balance is for fertilizers to work, Agro-Culture Liquid Fertilizer launched a marketing program called “Nutrients Not Numbers.” Its message is delivered, in part, by an engaging animated character named Farm Guy. He encourages viewers to look beyond the macronutrient data delivered in a soil analysis and to learn how micronutrients lend the necessary balance that helps plants utilize all nutrients.
“Growers are starting to realize they have the opportunity to improve their operations without great changes either in their cultural practices or their fertility programs just by adjusting components by creating that synergism between the nutrients,” says Lonny Smith, marketing manager.
Agro-Culture offers the MicroLink family of micronutrient and enhancement products, and Smith reports a very significant increase in micronutrient sales over the last few years. He says the company had actually been growing phenomenally over the past 15 years, but recently “it’s just been speeding up.”
Actually, when looking at the micronutrient market overall, “speeding up” may be just the description.