How Microbes Are Improving Fertilizer, Soil Health

What’s old is new again.

Growers have been using fertilizers of some sort for, well, as long as they’ve been farming. The advent of modern fertilizers certainly helped growers increase their outputs. But after decades of use, they have stripped many beneficial microbes from the soil.

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Many companies are now turning that technical knowhow and what’s been learned about the microbiome to provide products that help restore soil health and deliver increased yield.

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“A lot of the microbe strains that were in the world are now extinct,” Khanh Le, COO and Co-Founder, at Cisbay. “The unfortunate thing is before chemical fertilizer came about after World War II, the soil was quite healthy. We stripped the soil of the natural defense it had — active microorganisms. In nature, in order to control the bad bacteria, you need the good bacteria.”

While the technology has changed, e.g., formulation and application, the basics haven’t.

“It’s fertilizer. It’s the same 17 nutrients we’re all familiar with from school,” says Reid Abbott, SE Regional Agronomist, at AgroLiquid. “How we’re delivering that nutrient; the way the product behaves in the tank, in the soil, in the plant — we can create value from that chain of events.”

The field certainly doesn’t remain stagnant. Companies continue to innovate offering growers ways to make their crop input spend more efficient. Here are a few recent announcements.

Helena Agri-Enterprises

Resurge is a low-dust granule that provides growers with humic compounds engineered to improve nutrient efficiency and strengthen plant growth with fast release of the active ingredient.

“We’ve worked hard to change perceptions with demonstrations and telling our own story,” says Patrick Ewan, Helena’s Director of Sales & Brands. “We went through a complete rebrand. Five years ago, we might get different answers. Not anymore.”

Wilbur-Ellis

Wilbur-Ellis recently announced the launch of EMBRECE-EA, a unique blend of surfactants designed to elevate the performance of fungicides, insecticides, and miticides by increasing wetting and spreading of spray materials.

The product gives growers a safer alternative to similar adjuvants. “EMBRECE-EA can provide a high-performance option to organosilicone-containing adjuvants where there are concerns about phytotoxicity, spray mix run-off and toxicity to beneficial insects,” says Wilbur-Ellis’ Senior Formulation Chemist Jim Glatzhofer.

Midwestern BioAg

“Our approach to additives and enhancers on the fertilizer side is carbon, and not just any carbon, but rapidly available carbon,” says Edwin Suarez, Wholesale & Agronomy Manager. “It’s all related to nutrient uptake, nutrient efficiency.”

Following the 2020 Commodity Classic, TerraNu released details of the company’s latest field trials. Highlights from the data include 19 on-farm corn trials across six Midwestern states that demonstrated a 13 bushels per acre average yield increase compared to standard grower blends, and 89% of trials had increased nutrient uptake at VT including phosphorous, potassium, sulfur, boron, manganese, and zinc, according to the company.

Additionally, third-party corn research trials conducted over 2018 and 2019 consisted of 26 trials across seven states and showed a 5 bushels per acre increase over third-party fertilizer programs. In 2019 trials, 88% showed increased sulfur, boron, and zinc uptake at V5, the company says.

AgroLiquid

Not only are the products evolving, but so our application practices.

“What I’ve noticed fertility-wise is the differences in applications and spreading those timings out,” says Abbott. “The guys are getting pretty creative in how they’re putting out products that we’ve had out for years.”

They’re blending differently and addressing different nutrient situations; for example, addressing midseason through a sidedress application. In addition, the precision agriculture push provides tools to place fertilizer at planting time.

The company has taken its existing technology and manipulated that molecule to serve different purposes and get different characteristics out of our nutrients like faster nitrogen and phosphorous release, better storability, or mixability.

“Data is everything in this industry now,” Abbott says. “Guys are able to share different experiences back and forth. Growers — they’re trying to do things more efficiently but also not (have) a huge strain on their labor at the time of application. They’re trying to cram more and more operations onto that one pass on the field.”

American Plant Food

American Plant Food works with Sigma AgriScience to provide next generation biotechnology products.

American Plant Food works with Sigma AgriScience to provide next generation biotechnology products.

“We are working on several products including a poultry litter product made by Sigma AgroScience,” says Spencer Tibbitts, Research Agronomist with APF. “That product is called Sigma 2-4-2. The main benefit of that is it has lots of biologicals. It has bacteria and fungi to improve crop growth.”

APF is also working with a company out of Guatemala that produces a granulated, micronutrient product called Biosphere. “That contains various blends of micronutrients — calcium, sulfur, magnesium, manganese, zinc, boron, iron, etc.,” Tibbitts says.

The company also works with Com-pass Minerals to apply their line of powdered nutrients, Wolf Trax line, to our products. We’re seeing some success with their ProAqua — their soluable fertilizer.

Cisbay

The founders of Cisbay began the company by looking at different types of microbes with the goal of improving soil health.

“We begin to sequence and select the best of the best. Once we’ve done that, we went to the next step, which is we put the microbe in a combination (with other products), says Le.

The company has completed trials and offers its product in 10 countries. It is so confident in its product, the company offers a guarantee. If the promised return on investment is not realized, they will return 100% of the investment.

“When you grow something, it’s the first two feet (of soil) that matter.” Le says. “All your feeder roots are there. Most of the activity happens in the first two feet.”

In addition to helping restore soil health, Cisbay’s AGN product helps unlock the phosphate and nitrogen in the soil so the plant can access it better.

“Once you have a healthy soil, everything will grow; everything will be better, and health soils start with healthy microbes,” Le says.

Compass Minerals

The goal of Compass Minerals’ WolfTrax is to put the right nutrients on top of fertilizer, says Ryan Bartlett, Chief Transformation Officer. The micronutrient and secondary nutrient fertilizers are uniquely designed to coat onto dry fertilizer blends and deliver highly available nutrition through better distribution in the field than traditional granular fertilizers.

The powder coats fertilizer and helps decrease nutrient run off and is more efficient, Bartlett says.

Compass Minerals also touted its Rocket Seeds brand at the most recent Commodity Classic.

“An innovative, robust seed-applied nutritional, Rocket Seeds offers a portfolio of flexible, highly concentrated nutrient sources so young crops can better withstand early season cold and water stress while progressing through the vegetative growth stage,” the company says.

Sound Agriculture

Sound Agriculture launched Source, a foliar application for corn that helps nutrient availability in the root zone, for use in 2020, says Eric Davidson, Co-Founder and CEO.

It is small-molecule chemistry with a single active ingredient, he says. “It is encouraging more root association from the root zone microbes and turning on the nitrogen fixation — phosphate-solubilization capabilities that are inherent in those microbes.”

The company is also looking at products that deal with photosynthesis, water use, nutrient development, growth, and development — factors that are about the integration of the environment.

BRANDT

As today’s tank mixes become more challenging, the need for “smarter” and more compatible foliar nutrition is increasing. BRANDT SMART SYSTEM foliar micronutrients were designed for superior performance in a wide range of complex crop protection tank mixes, including glyphosate and select dicamba and 2,4-D herbicides.

In addition, the company’s new enzyme technology creates a rich soil environment around the seed. BRANDT EnzUp gets plants out of the ground faster, which extends the growing period and yield opportunity.

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