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Yield demands push need for biologicals

Willie Vogt Close-up of corn crop
RETHINKING FERTILITY: Mineral fertilizers have carried crops to new heights, but rising demand for higher yield will require new approaches to feeding that crop in the future.
A better understanding of soil health and the crop microbiome brings need for changing fertilizer approach.

Every year there’s a race happening on the farm. It’s a matchup between each corn plant and the crop nutrition provided on your operation. The key is delivering nutrition to that plant at the right time in a form that’s readily available, but there is a growing list of stumbling blocks to making that happen.

During a recent Advance Crop Nutrition event held by Mosaic, the discussion turned to the limits of mineral nutrition and ways to overcome that to meet increasing demand.

Curt Woolfolk, senior manager of crop nutrition technologies for Mosaic, set the stage, pointing to a recent report from the American Farmland Trust showing that 18.4 million acres of farmland will be converted out of production between 2016 and 2040. Contrast that with the rising demand for food and feed to meet a growing population, and that puts demand on every acre to produce more.

“We’re going to have to increase production by 90% and that expanded supply has to come from what we farm today,” he said.

Today’s crop, Woolfolk pointed out, gets most of its nutrition from mineral fertilizers. But there may be limits to the use of technology that, until now, has served agriculture well in boosting yield. The key will be producing more food on less land, which he said will require taking a comprehensive look at current thinking about the 4R’s of crop nutrition — right source, right rate, right time and right place.

“With soil health are we truly comprehensive in our thinking about the right source?” he asked. Acknowledging that Mosaic is a maker of concentrated phosphorus and potassium products, it’s important to consider how rates might be changing and what that means for future crops. And that means being open to new ideas on crop nutrition. “Just because Grandad did it or Dad did it, doesn’t mean you do. That’s the challenge,” Woolfolk said.

Woolfolk acknowledged that the key is that in the past, “we’ve overlooked the fact that the soil is alive, and I don’t feel in this industry that we’ve embraced the living component of the soil.”

That growing understanding of the soil microbiome and interaction between individual plants and nutrition supplied — by whatever means — is a mindset change that’s happening in the fertilizer industry.

Changing crop nutrition

Building on Woolfolk’s talk, Ross Bender, director of new product development, discussed an evolution in the crop nutrition world as agriculture moves toward a regenerative approach.

In his presentation, Bender showed a progression from the way crop fertility was first deployed in traditional agriculture to the trend toward regenerative agriculture. In the beginning, the management was done by the acre. But as the concept of 4R nutrition, soil health and the move toward organic and then regenerative agriculture, managing nutrition has evolved to a “by the plant” approach.

“As we migrate toward cropping systems that move us toward regenerative agriculture, our reliance on the soil becomes magnified,” Bender said. “We’re focusing on building a healthy soil, and we want to make it actionable.”

That’s the basis for the Mosaic approach to Advanced Crop Nutrition. The company already has its Microessentials product on the market, which Bender said is the foundation underpinning the company’s balanced crop nutrition approach today. With that balance, he said there’s a focus on working to harness the biology on “what’s going on beneath us in the soil.”

This traditional crop nutrition company remains a major player in its supply of mineral crop nutrition, but it’s turning toward biologicals as a way to keep up with an industry that’s working to increase yield every year. Mosaic acquired Plant Response, which is building a portfolio of biobased products for the market.

In addition, Mosaic is partnering with a range of companies, including Sound Agriculture, Anuvia, AgBiome and BioConsortia. Bender said that for the future, farmers and retailers will see the idea of crop nutrition more holistically by using partner technologies to maximize the use of mineral fertilizers. “It’s challenging us to rethink our paradigm [at Mosaic],” he said.

For farmers, the idea of hitting the field with P and K alone may not be enough for that high-yield corn crop. Rolling in a biological product that helps release those key nutrients as plants need it in season could be the next step in meeting rising yield targets. You can learn more about this approach and what it might mean for your farm at cropnutrition.com.

TAGS: Fertilizer
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