BEYOND NITROGEN: the brave new world of plant nutrition

When farmers talk about advances in food production, the conversation usually drifts to newly licensed seed varieties, the size of combine headers and weather. While all valid topics for discussion, it’s not what Jarrett Chambers wants to talk about.

Chambers is president of ATP Nutrition, a Manitoba-based company that provides high performance products and nutrient management plans to both the agriculture and horticulture sectors. He believes that agriculture is starting to wake up to an analytical reality that will empower farmers like never before. He speaks of biostimulants and micronutrients, which have the power to drive consistent performance and lower production costs per unit produced.

“We don’t talk ROI, it’s so last decade,” he says. It’s impossible to achieve perfection with your crop’s performance so the question for farmers is: At what level are you comfortable knowing that 100 per cent doesn’t exist? says Chambers. “How do we create consistency? That’s what farmers want to see. There’s no silver bullet out there and Mother Nature can be difficult.”

BIOSTIMULANTS

Primarily found in liquid form, biostimulants, or fertilizer additives, are generally used in combination with liquid fertilizers and applied on the seed, soil or as a foliar spray. Biostimulants are designed to boost a plant’s nutrient uptake, increase nutrient use efficiency and help plants better deal with abiotic stress.

“Biostimulants complement a well-balanced nutrient program,” Chambers says, adding that they should never be viewed as an alternative to traditional macro and micronutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Jarret Chambers, president of ATP Nutrition.

One key benefit of a biostimulant is that it acts as a catalyst to support the nutrients, freeing up the plant for other key functions, such as maximizing photosynthesis to drive its genetic potential.

“If the nutrient you foliar apply isn’t in the right form, it takes energy by the plant to convert it into an available and usable form,” he says. “The plant doesn’t have to use many calories to convert a nutrient into plant food, such as carbohydrate or an amino acid. Nutrient conversion is more efficient.”

Chambers offers an insightful analogy. Beef jerky, filet mignon and filet mignon diced up in a blender are all digestible. However, the puréed version will be consumed with the least work and provide nutrition the fastest. He says the same is true of plants accepting nutrients.

Yield-breaking fields usually appear green and also boast massive heads. That’s due to a complete nutrient program that includes biostimulants, says Chambers. Biostimulants also drive root growth. They are designed to help plants develop robust root systems within the first seven to 14 days of growth, because a strong start is key to overall crop success.

That is also the opinion of independent agronomist, Steve Larocque, who operates at Three Hills, AB. “You’ll find that fields with a high level of nutritional status perform well because the plants can tolerate stressors much better,” he says. “It starts with good balanced nutrition. Crops are better able to withstand biotic stressors like cold soil or frost events when you have a high level of background nutrition.”

It’s why Chambers continues to champion the idea of robust root development. “Plants can then acquire more moisture and nutrients out of the soil, and that’s really going to push the crop,” he says. “With greater uniformity in the plant stand and increased vigour coming from increased rooting, if it’s hot and dry, then we’ll be able to deal with environmental challenges better.”

However, one long-held frustration for many farmers is a greater understanding of what’s occurring in the field in real time. Chambers feels the irritation, too, and he is pleased to arm farmers with a new piece of technology this fall that is calibrated to western Canadian soils.

NutriScan is a handheld device that’s as simple to use as it is small. It’s placed on top of a soil sample and scanned. Within minutes, the device gives a comprehensive readout of what the soil is full of, or not. NutriScan measures for 16 unique elements by assessing 93 different parameters. The scan immediately sends data to the cloud and the results come back immediately to an agronomist. The traffic light setup gives farmers a very simple readout of where they are sufficient, neutral or deficient in key elements of soil health.

Larocque believes devices like this are the next wave of agricultural technology. “It can tell you the immediate nutritional status of the plants and can help you prescribe nutrients in-crop,” he says. “If you have low phosphorus or zinc due to cool conditions for example, you can quickly prescribe a foliar solution to correct the deficiency. That’s where it all gets exciting aside from just telling you a plant’s status.”

MICRONUTRIENTS

Micronutrients such as boron, zinc, copper and manganese are becoming increasingly popular as a way to help boost soil health. Micronutrients can be applied on the seed, as liquid and granular soil additives or as foliar sprays.

Larocque says micronutrients can enhance soil health but it can be challenging to see consistent, quantifiable results. “With micronutrients, you really have to find out what conditions will provide you with the greatest rate of return, or chance of a response,” he says. “(Is it) when it’s cold? When it’s wet? Too dry? What are your yield goals? What are your soil or tissue tests telling you?”

Steve Larocque, independent agronomist from Three Hills, AB.

Micronutrients are applied because the soil is deficient in them, or they are added as a top up to a high-yield program, says Larocque. Costs are not for the faint of heart, though. He takes an average number of $7.50 per acre for foliar copper, the most commonly used micronutrient on the Prairies, and factors that in with the cost of a sprayer, another $9 per acre if using custom rates.

“You’d really want to make sure you’re doing your homework with soil testing and tissue testing before you’d go ahead and spend that (money),” he says, adding that it’s preferable to see a 2:1 or 3:1 return on average. “If you do the math and require a 10, 15, or 20 per cent yield increase based on your target yield, the likelihood of getting that increase drops significantly. Everything we do requires a marginal rate of return.”

Overall, Larocque says micronutrients fall into two categories: supply or build. Supply means a farmer may apply less than half a pound of copper to correct an in-season deficiency. Or, if the farmer wants to build, they could apply 10 pounds of copper at once and amortize that cost over a decade.

His biggest challenge with micronutrients is the ability to understand the conditions and rates required to quickly respond to those in-season deficiencies. Product sheets always promise amazing returns, but that becomes a challenge to apply to every farm in Western Canada.

“There’s not really a big enough sample size,” Larocque says. “If you look at any pamphlet or booklet on micronutrients, you’re not going to see a sample number of 150 or 300 trials or years of data. You’re not going to find it, or, it’s going to be rare.”

FIELD-LEVEL TAKEAWAYS

Ultimately, it becomes a situation where farmers have to make very nuanced decisions, says Larocque. And while he agrees every farmer needs micronutrients and potentially biostimulants, the timing, as with many aspects of farming, is always the challenge.

“The hardest part is figuring out the conditions that exist to generate the greatest response and return on investment,” he says. “Every farmer needs them, every crop needs them.”

However, generating a consistent return on micronutrients or biostimulants is difficult, simply because of the variance that exists across a farmer’s field, and among different climates and growing regions. Certain areas of a field respond, and others simply will not.

“We’ve yet to build the analytical tools or quick decision trees necessary to help us understand when and where we need biostimulants and/or micronutrients,” says Larocque. He estimates 15 to 20 per cent of farmers use micronutrients, the most common being copper, zinc and boron. As for biostimulants, he believes they have a five to 10 per cent adoption rate. FF