Micronutrients: Entering The Mainstream

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Ranco Boron MixerFor many years, the fortunes of micronutrients in a given crop season tended to rise or fall depending upon one factor: Money. In years when commodity prices were high and grower-customers were flush with cash, micronutrient sales would also be up. In years when commodity prices stayed low, cutting into grower cash-flow, usage would drop.

In more recent years, however, there has been somewhat of a change in this cycle for micronutrients, say market watchers. Instead, micronutrient usage has become as important to grower-customers as using the proper macronutrients.

“As growers continue to strive for higher yields, they recognize the limitations of focusing solely on nitrogen, phosphorous and potash,” says Kerry Green, managing director for Wolf Trax Inc. “Many growers are realizing that micronutrients play a key role in optimizing yields.”

Jerry Stoller, president of Stoller Enterprises, Inc., agrees that micronutrients are now more mainstream in their usage than ever. “The use of micronutrients is no longer ‘new technology,’” says Stoller. “Farmers have a greater understanding for the needs of micronutrient use for improving production on most crops. The early adaptors have already adapted such practice, with many of the later adaptors practicing such. They are also looking for something new and something that will give them an advantage over other growers.”

Ag retailers have also noted this trend — at least based upon their sales experiences with micronutrients in 2012. In its annual CropLife 100 survey of the nation’s top dealerships and cooperatives, CropLife® magazine found that 87% of those polled had micronutrient sales increases of 1% to more than 5% year-over-year in 2012. Better still, only 3% of respondents saw any kind of sales decline in 2012 for the segment.

A Dry Land

Of course, points out Stoller, these numbers could have been even stronger if it wasn’t for one very huge elephant in the agricultural room during much of 2012 — the drought. Starting with a modest heat wave in late May, much of the nation found itself struggling with severe drought conditions throughout the rest of the year. In the end, millions of acres of crops were lost, particularly corn, and many growers were forced to take crop insurance money rather than harvest their wilted plants.

“The effects of drought during 2012 significantly curtailed micronutrient use,” says Stoller. “This drought significantly curtailed the use of strobilurin fungicide to enhance yields at the end of the season. When farmers are faced with droughts, they will not spend money. This is just a fact.”

Worse still, he adds, the drought after-effects continues to be felt across much of the country. This has already dampened some predictions for micronutrient usage in 2013. “The area outlets for sales of micronutrients in 2013 have a little less enthusiasm than the outlets of 2012,” says Stoller. “The farmers’ enthusiasm is less than in 2012 for all fertilizer materials due to the drought conditions that existed during 2012. I believe that all nutrient use will be curtailed on a per acre basis during 2013.”

Still, if there was a silver lining in the drought cloud for micronutrients, it might have been how they did perform when they were present in a field. “Even during the drought and heat last summer, farmers noticed that crops stood up better to stress where micronutrients had been applied,” says Mike Powell, brand manager, BioScience & Nutritional Products, Helena Chemical Co. “Yields were still reduced, but where micronutrients were not used, overall yields were reduced more.”

In 2013, both Stoller and Powell agree that the two overriding trends driving micronutrient sales in 2012 — money and weather — will again come into play. “Weather is the No. 1 factor,” says Powell. “If the season looks promising, farmers will invest more in micronutrients to get a stronger return from their crops. Water availability in the west could be a factor, but with the high pH soils there, micronutrients are almost always included in most recommendations. Plus, strong commodity prices certainly will play a role.”

This is the same view Stoller holds. “The use of micronutrients in 2013 will primarily be determined by two factors,” he says. “One, the amount of available moisture and the weather outlook at the time of planting during the month of April. Second, the price of corn and soybean commodities for the future market for November 2013.”

Boosting Nutrients

With this in mind, Stoller expects the micronutrients that will do best this year will have the ability to “play nice” with other ingredients. “Micronutrients which will gain the greatest amount of use in 2013 are those that can be mixed with glyphosate and applied along with glyphosate applications without causing precipitation in spray tanks and negatively affecting the weed control of the glyphosate,” he says. “Farmers do not want problems when they apply herbicides. Dealers do not want problems when farmers have problems applying herbicides with various micronutrient mixtures.”

Helena’s Powell also foresees the ability to mix with other products as a key driver in micronutrient usage in 2013. “The lines we offer include 100% EDTA-chelated products and highly soluble products that mix fast and enter the plant quickly,” he says. “Mixability with other tank mix components is critical. Our lines — Axilo, Ele-Max and others — are designed to deliver the product quickly to the crop and they mix well with other components. Two other products that mix well and deliver nutrients efficiently are KickStand Zinc 7 and Ferrilene (iron).”

Powell also anticipates that regional differences will ultimately play a role in how certain micronutrients perform during the upcoming growing season. “In the west, zinc and boron are important, as well as manganese and iron,” he says. “That’s also true for other regions, but copper is also important as you get further east. Regardless of the region, we always recommend soil analysis to correct soil deficiencies and tissue analysis to help correct any in-season deficiencies.”

Drought concerns will also play a part in 2013’s micronutrients decisions, says Wolf Trax’s Green. “With last year’s drought still fresh in their minds, growers are continuing to look for tools to help mitigate early-season growing stress,” he says. “We expect to see high levels of interest in Wolf Trax technology, especially Zinc DPP and PROTINUS Seed Nutrition in corn because both products deliver early uptake of important nutrients. PROTINUS delivers nutrients directly to the growing seed, which helps with earlier, more even emergence and bigger seedlings with longer, more developed root systems. This helps the young plants search for nutrients and water. In a year like this, that early nutrient boost can really make a big difference right through the growing season.”

In addition, Green expects there to be healthy demand for two other Wolf Trax products as well: Boron DDP and Magnesium DDP. “Magnesium is an important, and often overlooked, nutrient for crops,” he says. “As the central element in a chlorophyll molecule, magnesium powers photosynthesis. It is vital to overall healthy plant development and growth as it plays an important role in moving sugars from the leaf to phloem. Magnesium DDP provides plants with early access to the nutrient, as well as extending feeding potential.”

Ultimately, however, the micronutrients that perform best in 2013 will come down to performance, says Stoller. “It is the micronutrients that cause greater sugar transport from the mother plant to the seed that will increase in sales,” he says. “The micronutrients that inhibit flower and kernel abortion will increase in sales. The micronutrients that cause the plants to create more energy for storage to be transferred to the seed during the period of seed filling will increase in sales. All other micronutrients will be static in their growth characteristics.”

The Next Steps

Further down the line, many in the micronutrients market expect their products will continue to evolve, in both the ways they interact with other key agricultural products and how they are used by growers. “It is our opinion that future sales will come from products that can combine nutritional values with yield enhancing qualities,” says Stoller. “It is the category of  ‘yield enhancers’ that will be the next generation of growth amongst nutrition in small molecule use by the progressive grower. Seed treatments will be the greatest area of growth for the use of yield enhancers, as well as micronutrients. Farmers can easily observe early and vigorous root growth. Most farmers are becoming educated to understand that ‘plants grow from the roots up and plants die from the roots up.’”

In addition, Stoller expects the drought of 2012 to continue to shape how grower-customers use micronutrients in their operations. “In the future, farmers are going to be concerned about overcoming the effects of drought and high temperatures,” he says.

“As of now, it is difficult for them to understand how to do so,” says Stoller. “It is going to take a lot of education in order to encourage farmers to invest with the attitude that significant yield results can be obtained by enabling the plant to withstand droughts in high temperatures. The future of micronutrient sales depends upon the companies that can produce a product and teach the growers what micronutrients should be used, the proper time to use them and the reasons for the use. This information is going to depend upon research, not just testimonials. Science will lead the direction forward.”

Sfiligoj is the Editor for both CropLife and CropLife IRON magazines. He travels regularly to cover industry events and has been dedicated to the ag retail industry since he joined the staff in 2000.

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