Soil-sensing fertilizers among high-tech inputs on horizon

GLENLEA, Man. — A 10 minute rain, on an otherwise sunny day, arrived at an opportune time for Mario Tenuta to make a point.

The Prairies have been wet for a couple of decades and if that climate pattern continues, farmers in the region may need products that preserve and protect fertilizer inputs.

Mario Tenuta, University of Manitoba soil scientist, says Canadian growers should expect a flood of new additives and specialty fertilizers to arrive shortly on the market. With wet conditions, he said  producers may need products that prevent losses and protect sizable investments in nitrogen fertilizers  |  Robert Arnason photo

Mario Tenuta, University of Manitoba soil scientist, says Canadian growers should expect a flood of new additives and specialty fertilizers to arrive shortly on the market. With wet conditions, he said producers may need products that prevent losses and protect sizable investments in nitrogen fertilizers | Robert Arnason photo

“If this (wetter weather) is something in the long term, I think these products are going to be more and more economically useful,” said Tenuta, a University of Manitoba soil scientist, during a water and nutrient themed field day at the university’s research centre south of Winnipeg.

Standing in a field west of the Glenlea research station next to a table of glass jars filled with enhanced efficiency fertilizer products, Tenuta said these items are just the beginning of a trend.

Companies will continue to unveil new versions of existing products, such as coated fertilizers and urease and nitrification inhibitors, which reduce losses associated with volatilization, leaching and denitrification.

For instance, Dow AgroSciences recently registered a fertilizer stability agent called nitrapyrin. BASF has also introduced a new product in Canada.

“Now you’ve got the powerhouses of the ag-chemistry business making these products…. Once they put their brains and capital resources into development of new products, that should be pretty exciting,” Tenuta said. “So guess what? In five or 10 years, the book is going to get thicker. We’re going to have lots of options.”

Besides variations on existing technology, Tenuta said innovative fertilizer products are also in development.

“Fertilizers that sense soil. Sensing fertilizers that actually sense how much nitrogen or nutrients are in the soil … If the plant is sending out signals saying, ‘I’m starved for nitrogen,’ then the granule will respond to that,” he said. “I would refer to these as ultra-smart fertilizers.”

Tenuta said chemical companies have invested in more efficient fertilizers and new additives because as nitrogen prices increase, farmers are more likely to pay to protect their investments in nutrients. As well, he said the federal government recently loosened regulations and companies no longer have to prove their products are effective.

Tenuta said that might lead to a buyer beware scenario for a few years, but the marketplace will eventually separate the wheat from the chaff.

“Products will have to perform to survive in the market. That’s (sounds) fair enough to me.”

John Heard, Manitoba Agriculture soil fertility specialist, said it isn’t easy to market fertilizer, because dry urea and anhydrous ammonia don’t possess a lot of charisma.

It’s easier for companies to sell when they have something distinct from the competition.

“I think the fertilizer companies have recognized what herbicide companies and others have, that product differentiation is kind of nice,” said Heard, who also participated in the Glenlea field day. “It’s good that (companies) are going to take some of these products and be more aggressive in the management of them.”

Heard said there are a number of situations where enhanced fertilizer products are beneficial, such as application late in the summer or early in the fall.

Tenuta added that growers have two choices when applying fertilizer at a non-optimal time: they can apply a higher rate to compensate for potential losses or use a product that minimizes leaching and denitrification.

“It protects the nitrogen so they don’t have to increase the rates (of application),” he said. “To me that’s where I can see the (price) premium being recovered for the grower.”

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