Micronutrient makers could list a number of surprises that popped up this season. In fact, Jerry Stoller, president of Stoller USA, was shocked. “I have been in the fertilizer industry for 45 years. There has never been a spring where there was not a fertilizer season. I would never have believed that this could happen.” He describes farmers planting into very cold soils, plantings being interrupted by rainy periods.
On a scale of one to 10, where five is a surprise and 10 is hit by lightning, Dirk Lohry, president of Nulex, Inc., characterizes market behavior as a seven. “We went from irrational exuberance in July of ’08 to soul-searching introspection in November ’08,” he says. “The good thing about the micro market is that it did not drop more than the broader fertilizer market: Prices held and volumes were comparable.” He notes that in past downturns, micronutrients were the first inputs cut because they’ve been considered luxury items — but now, they can be applied at more cost-effective, scientifically determined rates.
“Micronutrient sales were surprisingly good compared to nitrogen, phosphorous, and potash (NPK) sales, which were down from 30% to 50%, by the sound of it,” says Jeff Ivan, manager of marketing and business development with Tiger-Sul Products. Dan Froehlich, director of agronomic marketing at The Mosaic Co., saw sales of his firm’s products containing micronutrients grow significantly. “More growers understood that high yields require more than just N, P, and K,” he says.
Questioning Growers’ Choices
Growers also made fertilizer application decisions based on the nutrient price instead of crop needs and simply lowered expectations, says Froehlich. “In many cases, nitrogen levels were kept high while P and K levels were drastically reduced.” He predicts there will be disappointed growers at harvest who may realize lower yields were not all weather-related.
Rod Riech, sales and marketing coordinator, specialty formulations division at Brandt Consolidated, was also surprised at “the continued increase in foliar micronutrients and the decline in commodity fertilizer, due to weather-related issues and lower P and K applications.”
In fact, Lohry says dramatically lower P and K applications, as well as some nutrient-washing rains, caused some yellow corn, unfilled ears, and purple striped leaves. He is concerned that growers may actually see as-good or better yields at 30% less P and K plus micronutrients — then conclude they didn’t need those inputs anyway and continue with the lower rates, even at lower input costs. The real objective results of nutrient return should be calculated scientifically and not anecdotally, he warns.
Froehlich adds that growers with good fertility programs, including micros, saw better early growth in the cool, wet conditions, as soil nutrient availability was delayed. “Faster, early growth produced stronger, deeper-rooted plants that tolerated heat and drought better — and should translate into much higher yields come final harvest,” he says. “Micronutrients are designed to deliver early uptake and sustained feeding over time,” summarizes Kerry Green, managing director at Wolf Trax. “This dual-action availability is ideal in those years where we experience variable and suboptimal growing conditions.”
Tiger-Sul’s Ivan agrees that products with “season-long release” performed very well under wet conditions where many nutrients could be leached out of the rooting zone.
Micronutrients may be proving their worth, but it’s not been without the help of efforts at both the manufacturer and dealer levels. Riech says Brandt was able to add to its sales staff for the ’09 season, which helped the company gain additional support in existing markets and expand sales into new territories.
Says Nulex’s Lohry: “Retailers all over are getting back to promoting and educating growers about the importance of a complete balanced fertility program. For next season in particular, dealers need to put on their selling hats and get back to selling the basics of profit by fertilizer.” Skeptical growers, burned by high prices, may make this year’s cuts in application rates long-term — or permanent, he warns. “Watch for growers’ response this year. It may not be rational.”
Green says, “It’s clear that even in a down year, retailers are more interested than ever in new technologies and products that provide value to their growers and provide them with an opportunity to differentiate.” Dealers could tap into supporting information from Wolf Trax via the company’s Web site, webinars, and retailer bulletins.
Tiger-Sul has been assisting retailers by providing technical papers on the importance of micronutrients in balanced fertility, says Ivan. One company campaign in the Midwest alerted customers that sulfur deficiencies in the region are becoming a concern — and that sulfur will dramatically improve NPK use efficiency. He encourages dealers to start with a soil test for growers.
Stoller admits that thanks to concern about limiting losses on early purchased fertilizer materials, dealers did not have a lot of time to concentrate on educating growers. He says both retailers and growers need to be taught how to look at a plant and determine any nutrient insufficiencies. “More nutrient deficiencies and diseases appear during the reproductive stage of growth of any plant. This needs to be taught,” says Stoller.
Froehlich has found that growers want to know more about the benefits and downsides of new fertility programs before they commit, and that retailers are responding with more field days and off-season meetings that include general fertility and the use of micros as topics. He believes dealers need to do more side-by-side trials on growers’ fields to demonstrate the value of using micronutrients in a program compared to their current practice. Solid sales in a leaner fertilizer buying year prove how much growers have come to value these products.