The world of micronutrients is as varied as it is vast, and even with depressed commodity prices keeping some growers from fully committing to the segment year-to-year, the companies and institutions with the most skin in that game are still seeing solid adoption stateside.
Dale Edgington, Vice Chairman of Advanced Micronutrient Products with the Micronutrients Manufacturers Association, wrote an op-ed recently for sister publication Agribusiness Global. In his piece Edgington shares the belief that demand for micronutrients can be broken into two market categories: standard practice and luxury consumption.
Some growers will provide all nutrient elements as a standard practice, he writes. They won’t reduce rates or eliminate nutrients from their budgets unless significant market factors or weather events force them too. These growers, according to Edgington, provide a stable base for the micronutrient fertilizer manufacturers to service. Other growers will only apply micronutrients if they perceive that they can gain enough extra yield to pay for the additional cost.
The last 12 months in the micronutrient market has also been a tale of two, with 2016’s wet fall delaying many of the planned fall applications of nutrients to spring pre-plant, when what Edgington calls a “brief spike” in commodity prices helped persuade the luxury consumers to make some top-end yield chasing applications.
“The effect of both factors increased demand for zinc and boron in the spring of 2017,” he writes. “The fall of 2017 has seen a return to more normal patterns of harvest and fertilizer applications as part of the grower standard practices. Lower commodity prices have taken the luxury consumer back out of the market.”
Edgington also notes that micronutrients represent a relatively small portion of the total fertilizer applied in North America, but that many “recognize that a balanced fertility program is required to maximize production.”
On the retail side of things, No. 22-ranked CropLife 100 dealer BRANDT (Springfield, IL) is a name many hold synonymous with micronutrients, as the outfit produces multiple product lines of proprietary micronutrient blends that compete with some of the big boys in the fertilizer business.
Indeed, with 46% of its total revenue (estimated for 2017 in the $101-200 million range) in plant nutrient sales, Brian Haschmeyer, director of discovery and innovation, told our Jackie Pucci back in the fall that a decline in starter fertilizer usage has made EDTA-chelated blends a tougher sell for retailers than in previous years.
“Despite the challenges with chelates, foliar micronutrients such as BRANDT Smart Trio, BRANDT Smart Quatro, and Smart B Mo remained fairly strong this year,” he explained. “BRANDT high-performance foliar micronutrients, such as the BRANDT Smart System product line, have gained significant traction over the last seven to eight years … they also deliver a very positive ROI.”
For the fast-approaching 2018 growing season BRANDT will continue to submit new micronutrient formulations for review and approval for tank mixing with the newish 2,4-D and dicamba tolerant cropping systems, among other areas that will place a significant demand on the retailer’s time.
“BRANDT is also focusing efforts on its new BRANDT Smart B and BRANDT Smart B-Mo foliar boron and molybdenum formulations,” Haschmeyer added. “Both products are formulated with BRANDT’s new ‘super boron’ molecule that was developed in-house. The new boron is compatible with other micronutrients, including calcium, which was very difficult to achieve from a chemistry standpoint and offers growers a lot more application flexibility.
Haschmeyer also notes that field and tissue tests showed Smart B was “significantly more mobile and effective than standard 10% liquid boron formulations.”
Multinational giant Mosaic is certainly feeling the strain from lower commodity prices stateside. That said, revenue strain hasn’t been as intense on the micronutrient side of things, according to Tom Fry, premium products sales manager.
“Lower commodity prices are certainly pushing farmers to think more critically about their inputs,” he allows. “However, with the ROI we see with MicroEssentials and Aspire, we continue to see the demand for both products continue to grow rapidly.”
Fry says that the two Mosaic micronutrient products provide a sort of “one-stop-nutrient-shop” for plants.
“By combining secondary and micronutrients in the same granule as the potash in Aspire and phosphate in MicroEssentials, we see yield and ROI above the standard fertilizer application due to uniform nutrient distribution of these nutrients that can otherwise be difficult to distribute evenly across the field, he explains. “Retailers benefit from great efficiencies in application allowing them to cover more acres.”
Retailers carrying Mosaic product can expect to see a new formulation of Aspire in the coming months. Fry says the product will contain two forms of boron for season-long availability and a “flexible fall or spring application window.”
“Retailers and growers alike value the combination of nutrients applied foundationally knowing the nutrients are available when and where they need them,” he reminds.
Meanwhile, over at Compass Minerals — manufacturers of the popular Wolf Trax line of micronutrients — the company is taking a progressive approach that you oft don’t see in an industry that depends on higher sales volumes year-over-year.
“Our goal continues to be how retailers and growers can do more with less,” says Ryan Bartlett. “Less product with greater efficiency, and less water and waste for more sustainable operations. Our portfolio delivers on this thinking today but we believe we can be better – without sacrificing quality or technology.”
Bartlett, Vice President, innovation and product development, shares that micronutrient sales volumes are anything but down at Compass because “growers see the difference in performance (i.e. yield) when specialty micronutrients are used.”
“They know they can’t save their way to prosperity when it comes to crop inputs. Products like Wolf Trax and ProAcqua consistently deliver nutrients across each crop stage to improve crop viability,” he says. “Additionally, we’ve talked to growers using Wolf Trax who have reported a 2-3x return on investment for their operations.”
Looking at 2018 specifically, Bartlett says that Compass is seeing increased interest in boron products as spring orders from retailers begin to trickle in.
“Data supports the benefits of boron in small amounts across a wide variety of crops and soil types,” he explains. “Wolf Trax Boron DDP provides even distribution across the field and early season plant uptake that meets the needs of these farmers and their crops.”
Another growing area of interest among Compass’ retail partners is putting more nutrients on through irrigation, or fertigation, especially out west and in areas of intense specialty crop production like California’s Central Valley.
“The fertigation, irrigation and foliar micronutrient market is continuing to develop as growers see advantages to spoon feeding their crops throughout the season,” Bartlett say. “We see a strong market for our new ProAcqua products due to the flexibility of application, superior solubility and solid crop response.”
Being a new product in the market, many retailers first question will naturally be whether Compass can keep product in the bin if growers begin to adopt.
“Compass Minerals Plant Nutrition can ensure ample supply of the ProAcqua line due to our state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities in Brazil,” Bartlett responds. “We see market fit opportunity all across the United States, with initial focus on specialty crops on the West Coast and in the Southeast. We also see great opportunities in row crops as growers look to provide key nutrients with every pass through the field.”
The current focus around micronutrients at Shorview, MN-based WinField United includes an effort at educating customers to understand the difference between branded, premium micronutrient blends and lesser-cost generic options.
“While there may be an apparent cost savings on the front end from selecting a more budget friendly option, products that are partially chelated or derived from sources that are not immediately plant available might result in reduced plant uptake, and as a result, a lower return-on-investment,” explains Jason Haegele, WinField United agronomist.
Haegele says a good example of this is zinc sulfate, which can be soil-applied for less cost than some of the products designed to go on through the irrigation lines or via spring foliar application.
“If plant uptake and resulting bushels are the primary objective, then there are better (and more expensive) options like fully chelated-zinc applied with liquid fertilizer, foliar formulations applied when the crop demands zinc, or the dry lignosulfonate containing products that WinField United uses to complex micronutrients,” he argues.
Asked for data showing the ROI retailers can see from adopting WinField United’s NutriSolutions 360 and Max-In line of formulated micronutrients, Haegele cautions that it’s not so easy to put a number to micronutrient returns.
“Crop nutrition is a complex system, and sometimes a yield response stemming from an application of a micronutrient does not occur because some other nutritional or non-nutritional factor is yield limiting, or because we have not achieved the right balance of nutrients within the plant. As a result, ROI is more difficult to pin point to an exact number,” he says.
There are, however, a couple key benefits that Haegele points out around WinField United micronutrients.
“The first is that tissue testing using the NutriSolutions 360 System allows the retailer and grower to direct their resources to fields that are actually deficient or potentially responsive to the nutrient in question, as opposed to prophylactically making applications to fields that may already have adequate levels of the nutrient,” he explains.
“The second point is that the patented CornSorb technology contained within the Max-In products greatly increases movement of the micronutrients through the leaf cuticle to internal leaf structures. If a product is not available for plant uptake, then there is no ROI.”
Mosaic Talks ROI, Retailer Tool
Mosaic’s Tom Fry, premium product sales manager, discusses Mosaic’s ROI Calculator and a new tool for ag retailers:
“The Online ROI Calculator is a quick and helpful tool for growers to use as they begin the fertilizer application decision process,” explains Fry. “It gives growers insight into the potential value of MicroEssentials on their operation in three easy steps. We also have this tool on AspireBoron.com.
“For a more customized calculation growers should check with their retailer,” he continues. “We have a tool specifically for retailers to develop local recommendations: Retail Value Calculator. By taking into account specific information, including soil test results and their current crop nutrition plan, retailers are able to provide accurate nutrient rates and more detailed ROI potential to the grower. We continue to see good usage of both tools from growers and our retail partners.”
New(ish) Soil Lab on the Block
Champaign, IL-based Waypoint Analytical was one of the more interesting exhibitors I had the pleasure of visiting at this winter’s Agricultural Retailers Association (ARA) Conference & Expo.
Tasked with taking on the big, established soil test labs like Midwest Labs and others head-on, Waypoint is a somewhat newish outfit, initially founded as a loose affiliation among several independent labs throughout the Midwest in 2004 before rebranding in 2015 under the Waypoint moniker. The lab had several representatives were in Phoenix in December to seek out new retail clients for 2018 season.
Andy Wycislo, Ph.D., general manager and agronomist, was one of those reps, and he sat down with us to discuss soil testing lookouts for the 2018 season, including discussing where the industry is at currently with micronutrient testing, both soil and tissue-based.
“In certain areas people are starting to pay attention to micros and in some areas they are not,” Wycislo explains. “By and large though, micros are largely under-tested for, and the numbers we tend to see on certain nutrients, zinc in corn tends to be low — not always, but often enough. Boron is another one that we see having low numbers fairly frequently, and then Sulfur, both in corn and beans. Sulfur is kind of a big one for me because we used to get all that free acid rain, and now environmental regulations have put a stop to that.”
Another reason your local retail agronomist might not recommend a micronutrient test very often is that in prior years the practice has proven to be, in many cases, cost prohibitive.
“It’s more expensive to test for micronutrients, but for some labs — like Waypoint — that’s not the case anymore. Micronutrients are very reasonably priced to be added on.”
Another differentiation point for Waypoint, according to Wycislo, is the lab’s turnaround time on samples, both soil and tissue. He says that having a soil lab “within one UPS ground shipping day of most of the Midwest” is a pretty strong factor in serving customers faster.
“And once they get (the sample) to the lab our labs are designed for daily volume,” he adds. “So everything that comes in during the morning gets processed same day. If it came in today, you’d have it tomorrow. We run 24 hours a day, three shifts, and we don’t cut corners or skip steps, we process everything by the book.”