Micronutrients are not new to agriculture, and their popularity has ebbed and flowed, viewed as a extravagance used when times are good and the money rolls in, and they’re one of the first things to vanish from the prescription when times are tougher.
That distinction is disappearing.
“Over the past few years, we have seen a renewed focus on micronutrients,” says John Oppelt, Director of Alternative Crop Nutrients for American Plant Food. “Micronutrients as a category were once considered a luxury input. Now, with education and product performance this category is beginning to enjoy the attention that it deserves as a necessity.”
Micronutrients have become more mainstream, says Dr. Mojtaba Zaifnejad, Senior Director of Field Research and Technical Services for Bio Huma Netics. “Most farmers understand the need for them, especially with a proper soil and/or tissue/sap analysis. It’s becoming stronger and more mainstream each year.”
That’s a sentiment seen across the industry.
“We’ve seen consistent and aggressive growth in micronutrient over the last few years,” Brian Haschemeyer, VP, BRANDT Discovery & Innovation. “We expect continued growth in micronutrients in 2021.”
As promising as the year was, 2020 did present a few complications.
“We have been involved in the micronutrient business for over 30 years, and while 2020 offered some logistical challenges, our volumes remained similar to the previous year,” says John Bowen, Owner, Cameron Chemicals. “Having three U.S.-based production facilities, gives us a strategic advantage to some of our competition who is importing finished goods. Just-in-time shipping abilities, coupled with warehousing across the U.S., puts us in a great position to be a just-in-time supplier.”
And it means those providing micronutrients to the industry have reason to be excited about the future.
“With the ever-growing level of awareness for what our crops and markets need from a nutritional standpoint, Helena is very optimistic not only for 2021, but for many years to come,” says Josh Byford, Brand Manager of Coron and Nutritionals, Helena Agri-Enterprises LLC.
“I would characterize the micronutrient industry as steady to firm,” Oppelt says. “While we have underlying optimism in our grower customers, capturing market share with new products requires sound science, education, local yield data, ROI, and time. Growers are quick to request local performance data before heavy adoption rates can occur. Our job is to ensure the channel has all the tools it needs to execute at the local level. Our challenge is to select product additions to our portfolio that complement our business and perform consistently.”
As growers become savvier, manufacturers and distributors must learn how to better inform those customers about the value micronutrients offer.
“We will see continued growth with our nano-micronutrients, and if you look at the industry as a whole, more and more manufacturers are figuring out why and how to better position micronutrients, says Jim Krebsbach, Aqua-Yield’s Vice President of Sales. This helps everybody in the long run.
With the increased attention directed at micronutrients, the science supporting the segment improves their efficacy and sophistication.
“There’s a lot of new micronutrient technology entering the market,” Haschemeyer says. “New chemistries that make tank mixing and application very easy and effective. As well as new nutrient delivery systems, such as enzyme-micronutrient combination products that boost soil activity and nutrient uptake.”
Bowen is cautiously optimistic about the near future.
“Government payments in 2020 and stronger commodity prices have increased net farm income and improved cash flows,” he says. “When finances are tight, farmers are forced to cut costs and unfortunately, micronutrients are among the first to be cut. When the situation improves, they add the necessities in order to maximize yield. This enables us to plan, produce and ship all throughout the year vs. scrambling to find just-in-time deliveries as planters push to the field.”
That uptick in commodity prices offers reason for additional hope.
“The micronutrient industry is primed to have a good year heading into the 2021 growing season,” Mike Howell, Senior Agronomist, Nutrien.
The Andersons’ Tony Donoho agrees.
“The state of the micronutrient industry will continue to remain strong, but several new entrants and continued focus on micronutrients will put pressure on retailers to focus on the benefits of adding a micronutrient to a grower’s fertility program and how it will impact a grower’s return on investment,” he says Donoho, Director of Sales, Specialty Nutrients, The Andersons.
One of the factors driving the micronutrient industry is the increased interest from row crop growers.
“As utilization of dry, soil-applied micronutrient use continues to increase across broad-acre crops, we continue to be positive about the opportunities that the micronutrient business offers as we begin the 2021 season,” says Jake Socherman, Verdesian’s Vice President of Sales — Specialty Micronutrients.
When growers see the results, they become believers.
“For both corn and soybeans, many farmers saw some record-breaking yields in their crops, and we’ve realized the limiting factors can be these deficiencies in critical micronutrients,” says Jon Zuk, regional agronomist with WinField United in southern Minnesota. “Knowing that farmers saw higher yields and markets have been relatively strong, micronutrients will likely be more sought after as we head into the 2021 season.”
New and Changing
American Plant Food focuses on and is known as a dry fertilizer manufacturer and marketer.
“With the dry designation comes certain product offering expectations,” Oppelt says. “However, we see products that blur the lines between liquid and dry. For example, water-soluble dry micronutrient products. This line of products fits a niche that we had not been able to cover in the past (fertigation, foliar, and soil application).
“We are also seeing hopper-box seed applied products that are encouraging,” Oppelt continues. “In general, we are offering more products to “spoon feed” plant nutrition in a growing environment that has traditionally been preplant and side dress. We have more opportunities to feed the plant at critical growth stages that it may not be able to absorb fertilizer through the root system. Increasingly, growers are adopting products and technology that benefits plant nutrition by targeting the 4Rs: right source, right place, right rate, and the right time.”
Since soil conditions vary and weather is unpredictable, growers are looking for solutions that solve their unique needs.
“There is a product for every season and reason,” says Cameron Chemical’s Bowen. “Surface water quality is a hot topic in some markets and so banded applications below the soil surface or applied to the growing crop have replaced fall broadcast in those places.”
And manufacturers are delivering those solutions.
“There are many new products and some new delivery systems that have recently been developed or will be coming to the market in the near future,” Nutrien’s Howell says. “I would like to caution growers to do their homework on any new product. Make sure there is good scientific data to support the claims made and try new products in moderation on your farm before you make any major changes.”
That testing, at least anecdotally, has translated into increased interest.
“While the use of amino acids, biological and microbial products are not new to the industry, the use of these products has become more popular,” Donoho says. “Several companies have been testing and introducing new products, such as nanotechnology products, that will allow a retailer and grower to combine several different products. In the past, that combination of products may have been antagonistic with each other, but now they can be added to the same tank and stay in solution, thus, reducing the number of passes a grower may need to make over a field.”
The more researchers learn about micronutrients, the more targeted the solutions.
“The form at which micronutrients are being applied is something that will certainly be discussed this year,” Zuk says. “WinField United researchers and others in the industry are focusing more attention on foliar uptake, types of chelation, soil movement and plant availability, and new products will be developed to make the most effective use of these forms to the plant.”
“A new trend is around growing interest in soil health, stemming from farmers and consumers looking to align their interests in sustainability with balanced crop nutrition,” says Tom Fry, The Mosaic Co., Director of Performance Products. Mosaic has responded to this growing demand by introducing a new bio-based phosphate fertilizer, Sus-Terra fertilizer that incorporates organic matter from sustainable sources that interacts in the rhizosphere to boost and balance the microbiome.”
Factors Driving the Industry
Overall awareness at the grower level is pushing the micronutrient segment forward Aqua-Yield’s Krebsbach says. “Growers understand the importance of micronutrients for yield and quality. They are saving ‘room’ in their fertility budgets for micronutrients.”
Increased education throughout the supply chain helps drive the industry forward.
“The increase of general knowledge about the interaction between optimizing plant photosynthesis, improving soil microbiome and the role of some of the micronutrients as key coenzymes to facilitate this process are some of the contributing factors that drive the micronutrient industry,” says Bio Huma Netics’ Zaifnejad.
“The last 10 years, there has been a tremendous amount of manufacturer and retailer education on micronutrients,” Brandt’s Haschemeyer says.
Micronutrients haven’t escaped another industry-wide trend.
“Retailer consolidation has caused the building of larger blend plants with increased efficiency, but those plants are looking for ways to further streamline their process,” says Cameron Chemical’s Bowen. “While the agronomist might call for a prescription blend of major- and micronutrients, plant managers are calling for multiple elements in a single product that can be blended, loaded and applied with speed and efficiency.”
“Products have to fit the needs of both of our stake holders to be successful,” Mosaic’s Fry says. “The exciting thing is every year a greater understanding of soils through precision Ag and the response of cropping systems to balanced crop nutrition adds to our understanding of 4R nutrient stewardship of delivering the right products at the right rate from the right source at the right time to help farmers be profitable.”
Challenges to Growth
“Instability in the underlying commodity’s value can be huge. Delivering value makes for an exceptional opportunity but, it’s not that simple when the grower is concerned over the effects of a global pandemic, the ethanol industry, and international trade may have on the value of their crop,” American Plant Food’s Oppelt says.
Those macro realities certainly affect the industry, but there are still some “smaller” issues that hinder adoption.
“Assuring that claims being made are proven and verified,” Krebsbach says. “If efficiencies aren’t there with certain products, it does make it hard for true efficiency products that have been proven due to grower acceptance.”
Pricing for micronutrients and pricing for crops are creating some challenges Zaifnejad explains.
“When micronutrient prices are high and the market is low, farmers don’t have the means to pay for micronutrients, and it is one of the first things they drop out of their program.”
There are other challenges.
“Several land grant universities claim that they see no benefit to applying micronutrients,” Bowen says. “But farmers do. So, who is right? Neither of them? Or both of them? The university can’t test every field and every farmer’s unique set of inputs and practices that yield results. The best that can be done in the short term is to provide guidance on soil and tissue test indicators of excesses and deficiencies in the soil and in the crop. Soil health is more than just pH, P and K.”
Of course, no matter the challenge, manufacturers must make sure the products they offer will deliver.
“Helena’s biggest challenge in the micronutrient market, or any market for that matter, is to continue to bring premium products to the market that provide a proven performance edge to our customers,” Byford says.
And as widely accepted as micronutrients have become, there are still those who remain leery or at least ignorant of their value.
“Many growers do not understand micronutrient or their functions in the plants,” says Nutrien’s Howell. “I would encourage growers to educate themselves on each of the micronutrients, how they work, and what they do in the plant. Don’t just rely on a dealer to add in some micros in the blend, but rather know what your crop needs based on a good soil test, and apply micronutrients based on those results.”
Verdesian’s Socherman sees a similar issue.
“One of the largest challenges to growing the micronutrient market is the untreated acre,” Socherman says. “There are a significant number of grower and retailer operations that don’t currently have a micronutrient program. On occasion, these growers/retailers may spray a foliar application of a micronutrients during the growing season if they notice a deficiency in the crop. Therefore, at Verdesian Life Sciences, we are trying to educate and train growers/retailers about the benefits to the crop and the incremental yield that can be acquired by adding micronutrients to their N-P-K-S nutritional program.”
The Andersons’ Donoho offers a couple of additional challenges.
“The biggest challenge in the micronutrient space is keeping retailers and growers focused on key micronutrients that will help them achieve their overall fertility goals,” Donoho says. “Another big challenge that appears to be popping up is the additional regulation of microbial and biological products from governmental agencies. In recent years, there has been discussion on how and what governmental agency should have jurisdiction over the regulation of these types of products.”
While many challenges can be overcome with education, not everything is predictable.
“This can be tricky to manage, but Mother Nature is often going to be the limiting factor in growing the micronutrient market,” Zuk says. “Farmers can have the best micronutrient plan in place, but if the crop doesn’t receive the right amount of heat or moisture, they may not have the yield potential or see a visible yield response strong enough to justify their expense.”
And with the right justification, the market will continue to grow.
“We have an active R&D program that continues to look for ways to bring value to farmers around the world by solving for the science of improvements that we can make in balanced crop nutrition,” Fry says.
Opportunities for Growth
“We see opportunities in ‘micronutrient packages’ that contain micronutrients that are typically used to address crop nutrition needs for specific crops within a grower’s production area,” Oppelt says.
Simply put. Growers want proof.
“For Aqua-Yield, it is all about getting on more acres to showcase our proven technology,” Krebsbach says. “Micronutrients are a good way for our penetration as growers now have an understanding for their needs.”
Micronutrients can help growers in ways beyond yield.
“I think seeing the need to keep micronutrient applications up as a means to reduce pesticide (fungicide/insecticide) use,” Zaifnejad says. “When the plant is healthier its able to fight off insects and diseases easier. Instead of cutting out micronutrient applications, farmers need to understand the importance to save on pesticide use with micronutrients.
“Micronutrients are used in more fruit and vegetable crops because those farmers understand the importance of nutrient dense food and a focus on quality,” Zaifnejad continues. “Row crop farmers need to see it the same way. Focus on plant health and quality of yield, not just on quantity of yield.”
Micronutrients, along with just about every other aspect of agriculture, have joined the digital realm.
“Continued use of precision agriculture to identify and vet fertility needs found within a cropping system,” Byford says. “Utilize real time data along with ‘boots on the ground’ to assess the need, and also follow up to ensure the solution offered actually addressed the need.”
As North America enters the growing season, expectations for micronutrients is running high.
“This year is shaping up to have increased prices for most crops,” Nutrien’s Howell says. “With these higher prices, growers need to refill the soil bank that has been depleted. High-value cash crops and vegetable crops are also areas for growth in the micronutrient industry.”
Since the need for food never decreases, micronutrient manufacturers see reason for continued hope.
“As global populations grow and demand for increasing yields continues, micronutrient use and utilization will continue to be one of our best opportunities to grow the market,” Socherman says.
“Balanced crop nutrition is the foundation for success,” says Mosaic’s Fry. “Accounting for the total needs of your cropping systems, including micronutrients is an important part of a complete fertilizer program.”
• American Plant Food. 2021 will be a pivotal year of American Plant Food. Deeply rooted in our traditional role in the manufacturing and marketing of synthetic fertilizer, the company will launch a line of organic and biological products. Set to service the growing “true” organic grower. However, APF sees tremendous upside in its BioCatalyst line that seeks to provide bridge products (homogenous and/or heterogeneous synthetic and organic ingredients) coupled with a proprietary blend of biologicals. Both product lines (organic and BioCatalyst) feature organic micronutrient offerings.
• Aqua-Yield. Yes, we released NanoCS, which is a nanoliquid developed to be placed in-furrow with other liquid starter products. NanoCS is a balanced NPK and zinc along with a robust biostimulant package. The value NanoCS delivers is not just about yield but also the ability for growers to reduced the volume of liquid being used, allowing for more acres to be planted per fill, less salt to be applied in-furrow, and greater crop response potential.
• Bio Huma Netics. OMRI Fertilgold Micronutrients. Fertilgold Organics, powered by Micro Carbon Technology, offers a full line of effective products that have been designed to deliver true organic nutrition exactly when, where, and how crops need it.
• BRANDT. In spring 2021, the company will roll out several new formulations in the BRANDT EnzUp product line. The patent-pending enzyme-based fertilizer technology promotes soil activity and supports quick plant establishment. Getting healthy plants out of the ground faster and establishing robust root systems in the first eight weeks of the growing season is very advantageous — in terms of increasing water and nutrient uptake and improving plant health, vigor, and productivity.
• Cameron Chemicals. The company released a line of liquid micronutrients in 2020. Cameron continues to modify its portfolio to meet the needs of larger retailers looking for proprietary products. A growing percentage of the company’s production is specific to a customer, a market, a geography and in some instances to a crop.
• Helena. Helena currently has over 30 different projects with macro and micronutrients that are going through our internal vetting process that includes rigorous R&D testing, market analysis, and feasibility testing.
• Mosaic. In addition to launching Sus-Terra fertilizer in 2020, Mosaic announced an agreement with BioConsortia Inc. to collaborate to develop and launch nitrogen-fixing microbial products to increase yields on corn, wheat, and other major non-legume row crops that the company will test in field trials in 2021.
• Nutrien. Rainbow Plant Food makes over 50 grades of fertilizer, each with different micronutrient packages. The company constantly develops new grades based on grower needs and market demand. Rainbow Plant Food is a homogenous, granular fertilizer with precise amounts of primary, secondary, and micronutrients chemically combined into one solid granule. The granules’ size, shape, and density are controlled so each granule has consistent percentages of each nutrient.
• The Andersons. The Andersons has recently released three new biological products — Bio Pass, Bio Pass LG, and Bio Reverse. These products are designed to mix with liquid fertilizers and provide ease-of-use, efficiency, and a positive return on investment (ROI). The microbes are naturally occurring and sourced from high performing soils. The Andersons’ microbial packages use proprietary formulation-stabilizing technology, allowing the products to have a shelf life of two or more years.
• Verdesian. Verdesian Life Sciences recently introduced several additional new formulations to the MicroSync Granular Micronutrient portfolio of products. MicroSync IronClad IDC — this micronutrient product is uniquely formulated to perform in high pH environments, where Iron Deficiency Chlorosis is prevalent, and it provides both Chelated Iron and Zinc in a protected form to ensure crop availability and uptake. MicroSync IronClad IDC is a granular product designed to be applied in furrow or in a banded application.
• WinField United. The industry needs to focus on nutrient hierarchy by elemental prominence — that is, understanding which micronutrients are the most important for each crop, and identifying the right target for applying those nutrients when the crop needs it most. For instance, corn tends to respond best to micronutrients like zinc around V5, sulfur and manganese at V9 and boron at tassel. “If we can put more attention toward understanding the best application period for these micronutrients, we’ll be able to better help our customers optimize yield performance in the years to come,” the company says.