By MARGY ECKELKAMP for Farm Journal, August 4, 2023

It’s only been since 1988 that the International Plant Nutrition Institute has credited the 4R framework—application of the right nutrient source or product at the right rate, right time and in the right place—as having a close tie and application to agricultural sustainability. The 4Rs are millennials, and we are seeing a generation’s worth of change in today’s fertilizer products.

Of course, product development, environmental stewardship and crop yields have dynamically changed in 35 years. So what about fertilizer? Here’s an overview of some developments that have changed products to be not your father’s fertilizer.

Enhanced Efficiency Fertilizers
Enhanced efficiency fertilizers (EEF) span three categories: controlled-release products, ammonia volatilization inhibitors and nitrification inhibitors. In 2019, North American sales for EEF products was $590 million.

“Farmers’ interest has been how to get more from the fertilizer input and more into their yield,” says Karl Wyant, director of agronomy at Nutrien. “There have also been more state-by-state regulatory efforts as well as voluntary programs to reduce leaching and loss to the environment, making EEFs a popular choice.”

Nitrapyrin, which is used in nitrification inhibitors such as Instinct and N-Serve, may be the oldest technology in this group having been introduced 40 years ago.

Introduced in 2001, Agrotain was the first commercial ammonia volatilization product and was later acquired by Koch Agronomic Services (KAS). KAS has also introduced two effective chemistries in the past five years–Pronitridine in Centuro and Duromide in Anvol, says Tim Laatsch, KAS director of agronomy, North America. These innovations and technologies allow growers to protect their nitrogen with a solution that best fits their operational needs.

“What is most important about using EEFs is knowing the game you are playing,” Laatsch says. “You need to understand the potential for nitrogen loss in your system and select the right tools to manage that risk.”

Controlled-release options continue to expand.

“We want to supply premium fertilizer products that help farmers get the outcomes they are seeking,” Wyant says. “In that way, it’s more about the approach—and learning how to serve the customer and using our knowledge.”

Nutrien has 20 years of research for its ESN (Environmentally Smart Nitrogen 44-0-0) versus urea showing up to 26-bu.-per-acre increases in corn. There’s a logistical advantage of a longer preplant application window to extend the residence time of the nitrogen in the soil. Growers have reported being able to skip a second in-season fertilizer pass because they feel their nitrogen is “staying put” with ESN.

Ostara ramped up production this year of Crystal Green, which releases nutrients (phosphorus, magnesium, and nitrogen) in response to crop demand based on its organic acid solubility.

Packaging Nutrients
The number of fertilizer options is expanding, says Nutrien’s Wyant.

“Fertilizer 1.0 was such a massive technology innovation in human history. It shouldn’t be overlooked how we went from not using fertilizer, to night soil, to bird guano, to making fertilizer easy to transport and nutrient dense while also being able to write an analysis on a label,” he says. “Fertilizer 1.0 was a huge leap forward for crop production and food security in just a few generations.”

He says the current fertilizer products wave has been driven by local needs to meet farmer challenges, such as logistics and crop safety.

“It’s a fully customizable menu now. Instead of five product options, you have a factorial of hundreds of options,” he says. “How to pick the right product for your needs is a great discussion point with your local ag inputs dealer.”

More options equals more need for education.

“Resoundingly, yes, fertilizer has changed in a generation,” says Tom Fry, director of performance products at Mosaic. “It’s so confusing right now because retailers can get overwhelmed with options.”

Fry says Mosaic’s tried to help give retailers a focus around balanced crop nutrition to supply the right ratio of macros, micros and secondary crop nutrients. As an example, MicroEssentials provides sulfur and enhanced phosphate.

“It allows the nutrients to interact, so we improve the uptake and carefully spoon-feed the crop across the entire growing season,” he says.

Fry explains how the popularity has increased for MicroEssentials, and its sales now surpass the company’s volumes of MAP and DAP in North America.

He shares Aspire as another example. It combines boron with potassium.

“We have not figured out everything in the last two generations of soil science. We are sitting in the captain’s seat now to drive innovation and drive yields with farmers to see how technologies are coming together,” Fry says.

Essentially Sulfur
What was once supplied by the sulfur in the air has been cut by 50% in the past decade because of the Clean Air Act. Therefore, sulfur is being brought back into focus in a crop nutrition plan.

“My grandfather didn’t have to worry about sulfur,” says Jason Magan, sales manager at AdvanSix. “Demand continues to grow for ammonium sulfate. As such, we’ve increased our supply.”

Magan highlights two important facets of sulfur. The first is the relationship between sulfur and nitrogen uptake by the plant. The second point to consider is the opportunity to apply sulfur fertilizer to soybeans.

“Farmers want to plant soybeans earlier and earlier—when cold, wet soils cannot supply plant-available sulfur for nodulation,” he says. He adds, “Sulfur isn’t a new crop nutrient, but how crops get sulfur has changed, and we have to adapt our practices to supply the crops with what they need.”

Biological Breakthroughs
Biofertilizers are seen as potential tools to reduce rates and complement traditional fertilizers.
A first generation of nitrogen-fixing products applied at the time of planting has been commercially available for several years. The team at BioConsortia is one group working on its next generation of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and the goal is to use spore-forming microbes.

“This is a more difficult technology platform to develop than other microbes, but we want to provide a product that can fit into the standard agronomic practice—the industrial seed treatment, local seed treatment, and on-farm tank mix applications. The other benefit is it could ride alongside acidic product such as urea,” says Sarah Reiter, senior vice president at BioConsortia.

With more than 75 trials in corn since 2021, the team at BioConsortia is reporting a 5.8 bu. yield gain and 10% to 15% displacement of traditional nitrogen rates. Soybeans had their first trials in 2022. The goal of the commercially ready product is to provide a 20% yield gain and displace 30% of the applied nitrogen.

As a new chapter in crop nutrition, this type of research explores the symbiotic relationship between soil bacteria and plant roots. It’s a balance. As plants grow, they excrete sugars and acids through their roots, and soil bacteria feed and colonize to break down nutrients in the soil making them more available for plant uptake.

“We aim to put biological nutrition along with balanced crop nutrition. It will continue to keep farmers profitable, and it will continue to improve their sustainability,” says Mosaic’s Fry. “The goal is to do more with the fertilizer investments we make.” He adds, “We will learn more in the next 15 years than we’ve learned in the past 50.”

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