Micro Magic

Zinc Deficiency Corn

The mood of the micronutrients market is upbeat. And why not? All indicators point to another strong year in overall sales despite rising fertilizer and micronutrient costs. Corn and soybean prices are high, and even if some acres switch from zinc-loving corn to soybeans as anticipated, that just means growers will likely buy more manganese and boron instead.

“Even though fertilizer prices have risen dramatically, the strong commodity prices still pencil out a healthy bottom line,” points out Tiger-Sul Products, LLC‘s Jeff Ivan, manager of marketing and business development. The company, based in Calgary, AB, Canada, expects sales of its Tiger Micronutrients Fertilizer, a sulfur-based micronutrient source, to jump worldwide. “The use of micronutrients will increase as the farm economy enjoys favorable commodity prices.

We are seeing more interest in a wide range of micronutrient products and expect sales will continue to increase.”

Kipp Smallwood, director of sales for Tetra Micronutrients, Inc. in Houston, TX, agrees. “I feel like the worm has turned on the demand side now that the growers have the money,” he says. “They want to grow, they’ve gone from just sort of this subsistence yielding crop to try and support the fertilizer to maximize what they’re getting because of the crop prices.”

Jerry Stoller, president and CEO of StollerUSA, goes a bit further in his assessment. The Houston, TX-based company, which offers micronutrients and its Crop Health Products line, has tracked micronutrient performance since 1972 and expects a significant increase in sales. “Micronutrient sales in 2008 should increase approximately 25% over 2007,” he states. “Crop prices are higher than in 2007. The potential return on investment is greater than in 2007. I believe that all micronutrient sales will increase in 2008.” 

Think Yields, Yields, Yields

That interest has actually been building for the past three years, and there are several reasons why, says Dan Froehlich, U.S. agronomy manager for The Mosaic Co., Plymouth, MN, which introduced its MicroEssentials line in 2007. “The switch to continuous corn cropping systems in 2007 resulted in much higher sulfur and zinc usage than in previous years,” he says, noting that the secondary fertilizer market has benefited, too. “Agronomists know that corn requires more zinc and sulfur to achieve consistently higher yields. The steady, sustained increase in sulfur and zinc usage is a result of more educated growers and dealers striving for higher corn yields. Growers who are content with average corn yields probably don’t need to worry much about sulfur and zinc.

“Growers are very willing to invest more resources if they believe they can produce more bushels of corn — especially with grain prices at current levels,” Froehlich adds. “The newer corn genetics have much higher yield potentials than older varieties and higher yields are more easily attainable. We expect the use of micronutrients and secondary nutrients to continue to grow for many years.”

The toll on soils from the lack of or reduced micronutrient applications during recent lean crop price years is another factor. Many growers simply can’t afford not to replenish the soil’s nutrients this season, says Kerry Green, managing director of Wolf Trax, Inc., headquartered in Winnipeg, MB, Canada.

Despite an anticipated decline in corn acres, “we expect zinc and boron demand to remain strong because of soil deficiency in our key market areas,” he says. “In 2007, we witnessed stressful cold weather, especially early in the growing season, highlighting noticeable plant deficiencies in soils that would be considered ‘borderline deficient.’ This will make growers more aware of the value of balanced early-season nutrition.” Many new customers tried Wolf Trax DDP micronutrients in 2007, “and we have had lots of favorable response,” says Green.

Stoller feels liquid micronutrient sales will increase at a faster pace than granular or powder products, explaining that “most of the manganese that is applied on soybeans will be liquids. Much of the zinc that is applied on corn will be in-furrow or in starter fertilizer, and all of the iron that is applied to soybeans will be liquids.”

That’s one of the reasons Nachurs Alpine Solutions is promoting its Fortified Foliar, a liquid “super micro mix” targeting soybeans and alfalfa, according to Nichole Wilson, marketing coordinator for the Marion, OH-based company. “We’re promoting it more and more,” she says. “Growers are willing to spend the money to get higher alfalfa seed and higher soybean yields and plant health. A healthier soybean plant is higher-yielding and more disease and stress resistant.”

Market Supply Tight

No matter what crop(s) your grower-customers choose to plant, the necessary micronutrients won’t come cheap. There are several factors causing the increase in micronutrient prices, including the weakening of the U.S. dollar, Chinese competition, and the loss of two major dry zinc suppliers — Big River Zinc and Bay Zinc. These, coupled with high international zinc demand make supplies tight in many micronutrient sectors.

The loss of two major zinc competitors has put the dry zinc market “into a tailspin,” says Smallwood. Although Tetra Micronutrients hopes to capture some of that business, for now, the company’s product has already been snapped up. “We’re pretty well sold out through June for sure and through the season,” he says. “We’ve put out an early field program and it got oversubscribed and now we’re in a situation where the zinc fertilizer market is going to be extremely tight.

“Same thing for manganese, little bit different story: A lot of the manganese had been coming from China and their costs skyrocketed,” he says. “The world became short of manganese metal and a lot of the raw materials that we used to make the fertilizer went into metal production. This caused huge price increases and a tight supply of manganese sulfate.”

Many experts are predicting a small drop in corn acres in 2008 as growers take advantage of high soybean and wheat prices. “We are already seeing zinc micros moving to the wheat areas and we expect a significant movement in manganese and boron in the soybean areas this spring,” says David Benefield, senior vice president of Ozark, AL-based Frit Industries Inc. “Supplies are still tight, but should prove adequate for the spring season.”   

Micro Decisions Major

Some of your grower-customers will balk at the higher micronutrient prices on top of other higher input costs, like fuel and fertilizer. Manufacturers say it’s up to the retailer to help growers weigh micronutrient benefits vs. costs, how to time their purchases for the best pricing, and answer usage questions.

“Last year was marked with higher zinc and copper micronutrient prices than had been seen in many years. Coupled with an elevated nitrogen cost, many growers decided to reduce their application rates and wait until the market turned,” says Benefield. “Given this year’s NPK (nitrogen, phosphate, and postassium) pricing trend, the prices of micronutrients are looking like a real bargain. The corn market will be strong again, the supply of zinc and boron is better this year, and the pricing has leveled from a year ago. This will remain the case until probably next fall.”

Frit Industries which manufactures F420G, a 20% zinc product, secured high-quality raw material at a price “that won’t break the grower’s pocketbook,” says Benefield. “This high-quality product will allow growers to go back to building their soil levels of zinc.”

For all the talk about increasing micronutrient sales, keep in mind that application is the key. “Application rates are expected to decline due to more efficient use of micronutrients,” says Dirk Lohry, president of Sioux City, IA-based Nulex, Inc. “Precision application rates and placement will be more prevalent due to the higher costs of micros.”

“We anticipate manganese sales to be strong due to a combination of factors, including the weather last year, the anticipated increase in soybean acres, and the continuing university research demonstrating the importance of manganese on specific soybean varieties,” says Wolf Trax’s Green. “It can be a challenge to mix glyphosate with manganese micronutrients as a foliar application. This is a challenge given the different formulations of glyphosate on the market today; we expect lots of questions.” Wolf Trax expects that providing technical support will keep it busy in 2008.

“Agricultural dealers and co-ops need to be sure they are comfortable with the changing fertility practices and micronutrient usage,” adds Mosaic’s Froehlich. “Most fertilizer companies and universities offer training that will help them stay current with trends and new products. The large growers today are more knowledgeable and expect the dealerships that serve them to have knowledge they don’t have. Training can be expensive, but it is critical to provide the services large growers demand.”

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