There are a couple different market forces working on the micronutrients segment currently in U.S. agriculture.
Most impactful, of course, are depressed commodity prices that are making growers think twice about their fertilizer spends in general these last few years. On the other side of the coin is a growing grower awareness around soil health and the significant role that micronutrients can often play in today’s high-yielding hybrid cropping systems.
Eric Gordon, Plant Manager with BRANDT, Lincoln, IL, recently told CropLife® magazine contributing writer Lisa Heacox that he believes growers who have used micros and had seen the value will continue to use them. “But I think any new sales will be hard without some strong on-farm trials to prove their value,” he admitted.
However, micronutrient products are still not exactly top of mind for everybody, but they seem to pay for themselves more times than not, which is important for retailers to note in preseason planning meetings with growers with the increasing focus on return-on-investment in farming today, according to Daryl Warren, Vice President of Agronomy at Ceres Solutions, Crawfordsville, IN. “We’re getting more and more activity in that space every year,” he told Heacox, indicating that his grower-base is in fact experiencing a heightened awareness around things like boron, corn, manganese, and sulfur.
Paul Reising, Senior Product Manager for Micronutrients at Compass Minerals (manufacturers of Wolf Trax brand micronutrient products), would likely agree with the above points, although his customer-base didn’t quite feel the full sting of declining grower revenues in 2016 as much as they did in ’15.
“Surprisingly customers weren’t as hard on micronutrients as the 2015 season, but yes, in the last two years we’ve experienced a decline in the amount of soil applied micronutrients,” Reising shared from his office in the Kansas City, MO, area.
In 2017, Reising thinks growers, retailers, and manufacturers alike can all benefit in some fashion from some general “softening” of pricing on macronutrients like nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), which could leave more dollars in the fertilizer earmark for micronutrients. He expects zinc and sulfur in corn and manganese in soybeans to be the two biggest beneficiaries of this trend.
“With corn the earlier that corn can find the zinc, the earlier strong root development begins to take place,” he explains. “There’s also some University research that shows zinc actually could be instrumental in helping overall better utilization of all nutrients in the plant.”
Reising’s outfit, Compass Minerals, currently manufactures the popular Wolf Trax DDP granular-applied line of micronutrient products. Basically, an ag retailer during the blending process can use blending equipment to coat a grower’s fertilizer prills with different Wolf Trax DDP micronutrient blends. According to Reising, there are two advantages for those that embrace this approach.
“This industry has always had two problems: Number one is (product) segregation. The further away those dry granules get from the blender, the more segregation, or product dusting off, occurs,” Reising shares. “Zinc and manganese for one are denser elements than the N, P, and K that they’re applied onto, so the truck drives down the road, hits some bumps or a pothole or two, and they start to segregate.”
The other issue that Wolf Trax helps solve, according to Reising, is optimizing a plant’s feeding points. In laymen’s terms, Reising and Wolf Trax claim that the DDP-coated fertilizer granules are more available to plants (than say a liquid blend applied in-furrow 2X2) during the typical cold, wet spring that much of the Corn Belt is planting into these days as planting dates continue to move earlier and earlier into the year to accommodate larger farm and equipment size.
Wolf Trax’s NuTrax P+ is another notable micronutrient product from the Midwest-based outfit. Like the DDP products discussed earlier, it is a multi-micronutrient blend that retailers downstream apply to dry fertilizer granules as a value-added service. Reising notes that many growers are using the product in similar fashion as liquid starter, or “pop-up” as it is often referred to throughout the Corn Belt, but the NuTrax P+ formulation allows them certain gained efficiencies that pay off in the form of total yield and operating expense savings at the end of the year.
“The starter fertilizers utilized by farmers in the Midwest where more and more they are planting into colder soils where phosphorus availability can be a bit tricky — because of the cold weather it’s not tremendously available to the plant when it most needs it,” he explains. “Another issue is the logistics. With planter sizes growing — now every grower in the county has at least an 18-row planter it seems like — and the speed that they’re able to plant a 1,000 acre field, it’s becoming a logistical nightmare for the retailer to keep up and keep those (liquid fertilizer) tanks full. Plus all the horsepower that you have to use when you’re knifing in liquid starter into cold, hard soil, having the retailer come spin this dry blend on pre-plant is a much more efficient system for some growers.”
New for 2017 from Wolf Trax and Compass is Statesville Manganese, which was limited to some on-farm trials in 2016 and will be fully launched by the publishing of this article. Statesville is targeted to corn growers in the Mid-South, according to Reising.
“This product will feature three sources of manganese and is oriented toward those corn growers in, say South Georgia or the Carolinas, where humidity issues tend to pop up throughout the spring.”
Additionally, Vatren Jurin, Senior Product Manager for Plant Nutrition, Compass Minerals, has this to say regarding the company’s plans for 2017 and beyond.
“With the recent acquisition of Brazilian-based specialty plant nutrition company Produquímica, in conjunction with on-going product development, we look forward to rounding out our portfolio of nutrient offerings for North America. In 2017 we plan to introduce a complete line of soluble nutrients for seed treatment, foliar nutrition, fertigation, hydroponics and more.”
WinField United (Shoreview, MN) has a large offering of micronutrients that make up its holistic, total fertility package management program NutriSolutions 360, with the most notable players currently being its Max-In and Ultra-Che line of liquid micronutrients, as well as its Ascend Plant Growth Regulator (PGR).
Mark Glady, Agronomist, grew up farming what he calls “the goat hills of Southeast Minnesota”, and he currently spends a large bulk of his day-to-day visiting Answer Plots throughout Central Minnesota and training both WinField United staff as well as the staff of many aligned cooperatives that sell WinField micronutrients. When we spoke he’d just returned from meeting with a local cooperative sales agronomist who had just finished working through the dreaded “what can I cut for this year” conversation with a corn grower.
“His guys typically go 10-34-0, plus zinc, plus Ascend PGR, and they wanted to know ‘where can I cut?” Glady shared. “Ranking in order of priority, number one we’ve got to have phosphorus, it’s the most important element of any starter fertilizer program and helps get those kernels out of the ground in the spring, so that’s out. Number two, these guys are corn growers, so cutting zinc is out. Third most important is a PGR with gibberellic acid, and if they are prepared to cut this, they should also be prepared to cut bushels.”
Zinc, he says, remains a limiting factor throughout areas of corn production. WinField United Answer Plot data from 2016 showed 72% of 17,500 tissue samples coming back low to deficient in corn.
Glady says he gets asked all the time why a grower should buy WinField United’s foliar-applied Max-IN zinc over perhaps a cheaper, generic source of zinc.
“What makes Max-IN different is that it has an adjuvant package that is proprietary to WinField United known as our CornSorb technology,” Glady says. “In technical terms this technology would be described as a humectant — it delays the drying out of the spray droplets after they come out of the nozzle and onto the leaf. Basically it gives you a better chance of getting more micronutrient into the plant.”
When it comes to in-furrow applied liquid zinc for corn, the aforementioned EDTA-chelated Ultra-Che (9% zinc) and the citric acid-chelated Citri-Che (10% zinc), remain the most relevant, especially in Glady’s trade area where soils have a high pH range between 7.5-8.2.
“A lot of nutrients become tied up or not available for plant uptake, but if you put this chelate on an ion it very much protects it,” explains Glady.
Ascend, meanwhile, is like “giving a plant a shot of steroids, a way to jump start the germination process earlier,” although as Glady shared earlier, many growers plant steroid budgets seem to be drying up. But he reminds them that when they leave out fertility or a PGR, they are also leaving out top end yield potential. “As we know bushels pay bills, so make sure the growers you work with are taking into account their business goals.”