Nutrient Management Corner

Lise LeBlanc
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We have discussed both organic and inorganic fertilizers over the past few years. Let’s look at the future of fertilizer technology.

Many of the fertilizers that are used today were developed from the 1950’s-1970’s when energy was cheap and readily available.

There have been a few advances made since that time such as slow release fertilizers, encapsulated granules and temperature-released nutrients but the blended fertilizers continue to dominant the market.

Statistics show that about 27 million tonnes of fertilizer was used in 1960. This has increased to over 141 million tonnes by 2000 and 171 million tonnes in 2005. International companies are recognizing the profit potential from the fertilizer demand to feed our increasing world population. These companies are consolidating which leads to less competition on the world market.

There has been a call for new next generation cost effective fertilizers that are more efficient at delivering nutrients to the crop. These new fertilizers are also being developed to address environmental pollutions through the loss of nutrients (erosion or leaching).

Some examples are enhanced efficiency fertilizers, smart fertilizers and nanotechnology.

Enhanced efficiency fertilizers include polymer-coated urea for slow release nitrogen throughout the season and urease inhibitors to protect urea from volatilization (converting to gas) when the temperature increases. These products have mainly been used in turf and horticultural crops due to the higher cost than typical blended fertilizers. Although an initial higher cost, there are savings when only one pass is required as compared to multiple passes on a field.

MicroEssentials are another enhanced technology fertilizer. It’s an interesting concept in that several nutrients are combined into a single granule. One that I recommend to my clients, especially blueberry producers that use low application rates (i.e. 200 lbs/acre or less) is the microessential MESZ. Each granule contains nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and zinc. Potassium (and sometimes boron) is blended with the product for a full balance fertilizer. This ensures that the nutrients are uniformly spread throughout the field. It can be more difficult to evenly spread all nutrients in a blended fertilizer, especially at a low application rate. Each nutrient can have a different specific gravity (different weight) causing uneven settling in the bag and the fertilizer spreader.

Blueberry fields, that typically have very low levels of phosphorus, will have a more uniform distribution of phosphorus with MESZ. The combination of phosphorus and zinc within the granule has shown a phosphorus uptake increase up to 30%. MESZ also contains two forms of sulfur, immediately available for the developing plant and later in the growing season that is also important to many crops. We have seen a significant reduction in sulfur levels over the past couple of years.

“Smart Fertilizers” release nutrients only at the time and amount that is needed for the crop. There is improved plant growth with a reduced nutrient loss. Pennsylvania State University has developed granules that release the covering over the phosphorus depending on how much phosphorus is in the soil. If one part of the field has less phosphorus, more phosphorus is released in that area.

Nanotechnology.  This seems like science fiction coming true! You may have heard about the use of nanotechnology in medicine but they are also researching using smart delivery systems on the nanoscale level to deliver fertilizers. What is nanotechnology? A very simple explanation is that it’s manufacturing something at the molecular scale where you can control placement of individual atoms. This can increase the efficiency of fertilizers. The nano-sensors could have the ability to detect and treat a nutrient deficiency before symptoms are evident. Often by the time you see the symptom, the damage has been done and yield and quality has decreased. There continues to be vigorous debate over the use of nanotechnology. The Canadian Federal government is working on developing policy on nanotechnology in fertilizers and supplements.

This is a quick look at a few new fertilizer technologies that are either on the market or being researched around the world. As the world population expands, the price of fertilizers increase and stricter environmental standards are enforced, we will see more technologies that will be developed to meet the challenge of improving fertilizer efficiency and placement.

Any questions on this article or other fertility issue? Contact Lise LeBlanc at (902) 792-2636 or lise.leblanc@ns.sympatico.ca

 

 

Organizations: Pennsylvania State University

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