It’s real: The prospect of a boom season with high crop prices and stable input costs. And micronutrient suppliers see their products playing a key role in yield successes.
“With the crash of fertilizer prices two years ago, there’s been trepidation in buying,” says Kipp Smallwood, national sales manager with Tetra Micronutrients. “But dealers now feel like the crop prices are real and the fertilizer demand is going to be there.”
With 23 years in the fertilizer business, Smallwood should know — and he’s never seen excitement for micronutrients like the industry is starting to show now. Why? He believes many advances in chemicals and genetics have already been explored, including glyphosate resistance. “People are asking what is limiting the yield of this crop, what do I have to do to get higher yields? They’re coming around to micros,” he says.
That “coming around” may be turning into a stampede this year. Opinions vary on whether the demand can be met.
“I feel there’s a potential for extreme tightness,” says Smallwood. “With what happened in mid-January’s grain markets, I think I’m ready to start accepting that we’re entering into a ‘shortage,’ a word that’s not usually in my vocabulary. There may very well be a shortage of some elements that simply cannot be made in time for spring application.”
Mike Powell, brand manager of bioscience and nutritionals at Helena Chemical Co., confirms raw material supplies have been tight and prices for the high quality stocks the company uses in its products reflect that.
Though not a classic micronutrient, sulfur is feeling the pinch as well. Jeff Ivan, manager of marketing and business development with Tiger-Sul Products, says phosphate production is the largest consumer of elemental sulfur and demand has been strong, with many fertilizers either running short or being placed on allocation. Ammonium sulfate supply is tight globally as well.
Also placing pressure on supplies will be the huge corn crop estimated at 90 million acres, plus large increases in canola acreage in Canada. Ivan would caution growers not to let sulfur slip from their fertility programs. He says TSI (The Sulfur Institute) studies and Arise Research in Illinois show that having sulfur in the blend could reduce nitrogen utilization by as much as 30%.
“Tiger-Sul has three North American sulfur production facilities with the world’s largest production capacity for sulfur-based fertilizers,” Ivan says. “Our plants will be producing sulfur fertilizers around the clock to supply the requirements of our customers.”
Kerry Green, managing director of Wolf Trax, Inc., indicates that as a response to very strong market signals this fall from key customers, the company has ramped up manufacturing and will have very good supplies of DDP micronutrients to meet the anticipated increase in fertilizer demand. “Our ability to replace truckloads of granular micronutrients with a few pallets of DDP also allows quick and efficient transport,” he adds.
Lessons From Last Season
Where ever supplies may stand, last season provided some additional insights as to how to handle product this year. For instance, weather jeopardized fertilizer accessibility, including micronutrient availability. “Last year some areas were dry and very hot, and growers who didn’t manage their fertility well didn’t have the root system to support the heat stress,” describes Ivan.
Excessive rains also hit many states, resulting in significant leaching of mobile nutrients — such as nitrogen and sulfur — below the root zone and out of reach of crops, says Dan Froehlich, manager of new product development for The Mosaic Co. In fact, Mosaic agronomists saw white, vertical striping of leaves in the western Corn Belt and believe them to be symptoms of nutrient deficiency and soil moisture conditions. In addition, wet soils, compaction, and cool temperatures restricted root growth and nutrient uptake, causing plants to grow slower, limiting yield potential.
“Our research found a higher net return using our balanced crop nutrition high yield system than with a traditional program,” Froehlich adds. “These results are a good reminder that under stress conditions, providing optimum plant nutrition can increase a grower’s profitability.”
Timed release products helped here. Ivan says TIGER 90CR Sulphur released throughout the season, improving nutrient utilization — and with less nutrients lost.
“We saw a fair amount of micronutrients go out with fall fertilizer, but growers also included specific micronutrient products, like TraFix Zn and KickStand Zn, with starter fertilizers at planting,” says Helena’s Powell. He says that the company is able to assist growers in monitoring crops with its MegaLab, a plant tissue analysis tool that provides prescription recommendations based on the specific needs of crops.
“This avoids a ‘shotgun’ approach to micronutrient recommendations, which is an advantage for our customers,” he explains. Last summer, when heavy rains leached nitrogen, they recommended foliar applications of CoRoN controlled-release nitrogen.
“To provide lost N and micronutrients, we saw a lot of ENC (Ele-Max Nutrient Concentrate) go out, which gave growers N, P, and K, plus a healthy load of micronutrients,” adds Powell. That load included boron, iron, manganese, copper, zinc, cobalt, and molybdenum in a foliar application.
Smallwood also notes that recent years’ tissue tests are revealing that boron is coming up short in plants. This nutrient is important for cell wall structure, membranes, and metabolism, and deficiencies can affect crop yield and quality. He says the easiest way to combat low boron levels is application of granular boron to dry fertilizer, then a foliar application could be used later if needed. Many boron products are compatible with fungicides, for instance, and could be applied at the same time.
Increased cotton acres will result in a need for boron, says Green. “Boron DDP is really flexible,” as it can be used in starter fertilizer, in soil application as a coating on fertilizer, and in a foliar application that mixes quickly and easily, he says. In fact, almost all Wolf Trax DDP Micronutrients can be applied multiple ways. “Because of this flexibility, growers can address their crop’s micronutrient needs, even if they applied fertilizer last fall,” he explains.
The Season Ahead
Froehlich points to the 2010 soil test summary completed by the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI) as reason for concern in 2011. This work reveals there are still many areas of the country where nutrient application is not keeping pace with crop removal of nutrients. For instance, soil test phosphorus levels are very close to thresholds critical for optimum yield.
Froehlich also references recent research at the University of Illinois-Champaign showing that corn rootworm resistant hybrids removed significantly more nutrients (N, P, K, S, and Zn) from the soil than their non-resistant counterparts. “It’s a challenge for retailers to continue to counsel their growers on the fact that updated fertilizer plans are needed to keep pace with the advancements in seed technology,” he says.
Green says the new higher-yielding genetics can require 14% to 27% more zinc, for example. He believes Wolf Trax Zinc DDP is a highly efficient way to deliver zinc to a young corn plant. The product has a unique ability to coat dry fertilizer and offers better placement closer to the seedling for earlier uptake. Green says the coating technology in all DDP products offers “more consistent blends and a nice, even blanket-like coverage across a field.”
Froehlich also emphasizes the need for uniform distribution of readily available nutrients. He says Mosaic’s MicroEssentials provides the crop with nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and zinc in a single granule, while K-Mag supplies potassium, magnesium, and sulfur, all in the highly available water-soluble sulfate form.
Also for feeding demanding hybrids this year, Tiger-Sul is introducing Tiger Micronutrient Zn 4%, a low analysis zinc formulation combined with sulfur that Ivan says provides a much improved distribution of zinc in the soil. “Fifty pounds of our 4% Zn will result in 42 pounds actual sulfur with two pounds actual zinc,” Ivan describes.
A huge aid in managing fertilizer efficacy is soil testing, say all the manufacturers we contacted. “Micronutrients can be very site-specific in a field, varying from deficient to sufficient in a small area,” says Ivan. Site-specific management and application will improve outcomes. “New spreading technology such as the New Leader Multi Bin system has multiple bin hoppers that allow for different fertilizers, including micronutrients,” he points out.
In-season, plant tissue testing can provide an indication of micronutrient deficiencies, but often once a problem is spotted in a field, some of the negative impact on yield has already taken place, says Froehlich. “In years like this one, where there is a significant incentive to maximize yield results, it’s important to make certain both primary and micronutrients are available to the crop throughout the season.”
Manufacturers and dealers can step in to help growers assess their micronutrient needs. For instance, Wolf Trax has rate recommendations based on soil and tissue test data, available at wolftrax.com.
Froehlich adds that dealers can help growers watch out for pitfalls. One situation to mention: In some high calcium soils, soil tests may show high levels of nutrients, but the calcium locks them up, keeping them from getting to the crop. “In these cases, products that contain nutrients in the readily available sulfate form, like K-Mag, are especially valuable,” he says.