High Fertiliser Prices Focus Attention On N Input Efficiency And Soil Health.

Written by David Newton – Technical Manager, Timac Agro UK

The current fertiliser production and supply issues are leading to producers examining their inputs and expenditure, looking at the returns on their investment and the opportunity to enhance the effi-ciency and return from every kilo of input.

One way to help the soil regain balance is by using a soil conditioner. These are often based on the addition of calcium to soils, sometimes mistaken for liming, along with other trace elements and biological stimulants to help the soil heal itself. Liming is the addition of Calcium Carbonate to mop-up excess hydrogen ions-acidity, whereas soil conditioning, while buffering pH on a local level, also aims to improve soil structure, air and water flow, soil biological activity and, through this, nutrient availa-bility.

Two such products are Physiolith and Humistart, both based on a marine calcium base “Calcimer”; a highly reactive source of soluble calcium carbonate rich in essential trace elements that rapidly buff-ers any surface acidity, binds clay and humus to strengthen structure and regulate water flow, pro-vides a safe haven for soil microbes and can counter excess Mg & potash effects. Add into this a sea-weed-based rooting cytokinin and you have Physiolith; a great stimulator to improve crop establish-ment and rooting. The biostimulant in Physiolith also opens up nutrient uptake pathways generating more vigorous growth and healthier plants to strengthen establishment and return value for money.

In more established crops, or situations with potential for utilising OM, (min/no till, manure/compost additions, long-term grassland) Humistart may be more applicable. In this product the biostimulant is aimed at feeding soil life and stimulating fungal growth. The Minactiv biostimulant, again seaweed derived, targets the mineralisation of organic nutrition, especially where any tough, lignified material is involved. So breaking down cover crop, straw-based manure, wood-chip or high C-N ratio compost at temperatures down to 2oC to release “free” nutrition.

“In these times when we are examining every input, a soil conditioner can complement a lower input regime to reduce compaction, stimulate soil health, buffer pH and generate good returns” says David. “But I have a calcareous soil! Why would I add more Ca when it is locking up nutrition?”

It is all down to reactivity and roots! The highly reactive Ca in Calcimer works to produce stable aggre-gates even in calcareous soils, improving structure and reducing salt build-up. “at Timac we have done research into the effect of root density on local pH” says David: “Root exudates are mildly acidic, so it follows that if you increase root density you increase the concentration of exudates reducing the pH of the rhizosphere, this can be up to 1 pH point, so releasing locked up nutrition such as phosphate, so stimulating root growth not only finds more nutrition, it releases more from the soil”

“Soils have taken a battering, much like the agricultural industry for many years now, it isn’t the farmer’s fault, they have just been following the best advice of the time” says David, “however awareness of soil biology and interactions has improved so we need to farm differently now, the fertiliser price increases have forced growers to look at their input and consider their practices, hence the growth of regenerative farming, min/notill practices and soil conditioning”

What is the current situation?

The commonly used fertiliser materials that, in recent years, have been in plentiful supply and relatively cheap: Ammonium Nitrate, DAP, TSP, MOP work on a principle akin to the “carpet bombing” approach of the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s warfare; i.e. throw enough nutrient into the system and some of it will hit the target species. Unfortunately, as with Carpet bombing there is “collateral damage” of soil health, plant health, weed growth and reduced fertility that have led to a dependency on further chemical solutions. To mix metaphors, nitrate fertiliser is the “gateway drug” to dependence on the fungicides, herbicides and growth regulators that have been profitable for the Agronomy industry over the last 40 years. The focus on sustainable productivity, Carbon footprint reduction and the rise in input prices lead us to question this approach and look at ways to a more “precision strike” method of nutrition. 

Is it time to try something different?

Fertiliser formulation has moved on from the simple commodities to include extra technology to en-hance nutrient uptake efficiency, plant physiology, the delivery of the nutrients involved and enhance soil health to add sustainability into the nutrition system. For the last 40 years Timac Agro have been at the forefront of this enhanced fertiliser offering, developing soil conditioning phosphate and nitro-gen solutions that protect and improve (rather than disrupt) soil health with their soil conditioners, Physalg, N-process and a totally new phosphate, Top-phos ranges. These products utilise natural seaweed and humate technology to package nutrition in ways that pro-tect it from pH lock-up, leaching and volatilisation, working with the natural nutrient uptake processes of roots to deliver nutrition to plants in ways that promote both plant and soil health.

By including marine Calcium (from seashells), Sulphur and magnesium, elements demonstrated to have a synergy with nitrogen uptake, bound with the N-sources at a molecular level in their N-process molecule, Ti-mac nitrogens provide an ideal early-season application in all commercial crops to get the season off to a healthy start. The company is unusual in that it recommends rival products such as CAN for subse-quent applications due to the (usually) high price point of their inputs. This year is the exception as explained by James Hay, Deputy Manager of Timac Agro UK:

“Due to the nature of our manufacture process we are less subject to the fluctuations of the com-modity market and, although we have also experienced price pressure, our rises are considerably less than those experienced by the commodities such as Urea and AN, bringing us into line with and in-deed cheaper than some of the prices being circulated currently”

David Newton, Timac Agro UK product manager explains how they can help with the current price storm:

“by including soil conditioning technology in your fertiliser program this year and in years to come you will increase overall efficiency in nutrient uptake, a healthy soil, balanced for pH, will respond in a far superior way to all inputs, be they from manure or chemical sources, the future of nutrition must listen to the needs of the plant and soil to give sustainable, intensive agriculture. For example, one of our customers, utilising soil conditioning and N-pro in their program, have brought the N-input down from 250kg/ha to 180kg/ha over the course of three years with now yield penalty. With the current fertiliser market you can’t afford to ignore these opportunities” 

“We have been talking soil health and input efficiency for many years now, the current changes to payments, fertiliser market and emphasis on soil health and productivity means that our message is more relevant than ever”

Another approach to getting the best from your soils is to make sure they are in peak condition. Nu-trient availability drops off considerably in adverse conditions, readers of Direct Driller are all too aware of the issues caused by: 

• Low or High pH

• Compaction

• Low OM

• Poor water flow (too fast/slow)

• Imbalance of elements, excesses of one nutrient can severely affect the availability of others.

• Over tillage

All of these conditions above will affect the chemistry and biology of your soils, and, for optimal plant growth the soil needs to be balanced to allow the science to work. “At Timac we work with farmers to examine their particular situation, dig and test soils, look at crop-ping and establishment to see if there is anything inhibiting optimal growth. We focus on long term improvements, not just instant, short-term fixes to deliver sustainable growth in so many ways”