Growing Business, Growing Crops
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Growing Business, Growing Crops

 
February 10, 2009   |   ShareThis

When the first variable rate fertilizer systems were launched in the upper Midwest nearly two decades ago, the goal was to help growers improve the efficient use of crop nutrients. Today, the goal remains the same. Progressive retailers and growers are using spatial information to target nutrient inputs more effectively. And, they're incorporating a new plant nutrient technology which helps meet the plants' nutritional needs on an even more exacting basis.

At Cargill in Oxford, Neb., grid soil sampling is the spatial-data mainstay of the organization's agronomic business, and it's a growing aspect of the business, doubling in the last two years. Fifty percent of the grid-sampled acres follow a zone management for yield program with plant nutrients applied on a variable rate basis.

"I think there are two primary things driving the increase in our grid sampling business--fertilizer prices and education,"says Jeff Wessels, agronomist and precision ag manager at Cargill. "Farmers are looking for better ways to manage their input costs, and we're finally to a point where they understand the agronomic benefits of grid sampling and zone management.

"Why fertilize an entire field for 200 bushel per acre corn when some areas have only 130-bushel per acre yield potential and others have 270-bushel potential?" he asks. "With this program we can help customers put their fertilizer investment in areas where the return will be the greatest."

Five hundred miles north, the situation is much the same for Triangle Ag, headquartered in Ulen, Minn. The cooperative provides a wide array of precision agriculture services to customers across Minnesota and near Cooperstown, N.D. About 50 percent of customers employ some form of precision agriculture technology in their operations and come to Triangle Ag for assistance. Twenty percent of customers apply nutrients on a variable-rate basis.

Vegetative mapping via satellite imagery is the technology Triangle Ag relies upon when developing its zone management fertilizer recommendations.

Variable rate application without variable distribution

Both Wessels and Brad Fronning, Precision Ag Manager with Triangle Ag, are taking their zone management offering one step further with a relatively new fertilizer technology that takes nutrient management almost to an individual plant level.

The product is MicroEssentials®, a phosphorus-based fertilizer which incorporates the correct ratios of critical nutrients--nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and zinc (SZ) - into uniform granules. With all nutrients in each single granule, distribution is consistent within the specific management zone, giving every plant a better shot at getting the essential nutrients it needs to produce the best results.

"In a truck, seeder or cart, blends of different nutrients tend to bounce around and separate, just like chaff from grain," says Wessels. "And, in the case of zinc, if I need 1 pound of zinc per acre, it is much easier to evenly distribute 100 pounds of MicroEssentials per acre (with 1 pound Zn per 100 pounds) than it is to distribute three pounds of a 36 percent zinc fertilizer.

"With the sparse distribution of zinc in a blend, the likelihood of each plant getting some is pretty slim," Wessels says.

MicroEssentials is available in three formulations, and Wessels recommends MicroEssentials SZ (12 N - 40 P- 0 K -10 S- 1 Zn). Zinc is a critical micronutrient for proper growth and productivity of wheat and corn, and is particularly important in the zinc-deficient High Plains.

The addition of MicroEssentials also has allowed Wessels to remove costly zinc sulfate from the majority of his programs, which in some cases nearly compensates for the per acre cost difference of MicroEssentials. Eliminating zinc sulfate also frees storage space at the plant and opens up a bin on the six-bin SOILECTION dry applicator for other micronutrients.

In west central Minnesota, soils are deficient in sulfur as well as high in pH. Fronning relies on MicroEssentials S15 (13 N- 33 P- 0 K -15 S) because the sulfur within the granule actually lowers the soil pH near the granule, making the phosphorus more available to the plant and enhancing the plants' phosphorus use.

Both Wessels and Fronning have turned to the product as their primary phosphorus fertilizer offering. Whether using it as the P-base for a variable-rate prescription or applied on a blanket basis, their customers are seeing a benefit. Healthy, more vigorous plants and improved wheat and corn yields are the result. When used in sugar beets, trials done by American Crystal Sugar showed a return per acre of more than $200 from additional tons and a higher sugar content.

In Cargill's territory, where MicroEssentials is often used in a zone management program on irrigated corn, yield benefits have gone as high as 40 bushels per acre, though the common average is 10 to 20 additional bushels per acre. Because phosphorus and sulfur are provided in the appropriate ratios, crop uptake of phosphorus is improved by 10 to 30 percent, which means plants more efficiently use the nutrients provided and customers get a greater return from their fertilizer investment.

Capitalizing on the combination

Cargill captured 10,000 additional acres of business in the summer of 2008 by bundling grid-soil sampling and MicroEssentials into a special package for dryland wheat growers. For those who signed up to follow Cargill's zone fertility recommendations using the new fertilizer, grid soil sampling was discounted. The program included analyses for four nutrients and five soil characteristics as well as a variable rate prescription to reach a flat yield goal across the field. Zone management plans for maximum yield were available for an additional cost.

"By applying more nutrients in areas that needed them most, and reducing the rate where soil levels were adequate, our customers cut their fertilizer bills by $35 to $50 per acre compared to the flat rate they would have used without the grid sampling,"Wessels says. "The growers saw some huge savings. That made for very happy customers and helped us grow our business in other areas.

"Overall, MicroEssentials has been well received by customers. Most growers have heard of the product, and it certainly helps us differentiate our business from the competition," Wessels says.

The retailers also are seeing other benefits from the high-quality product, including the convenience of no mixing, greater uniformity, improved flowability, minimal dust and less caking and plugging as compared to MAP.