High N Prices Are Revealing Better Ways to Farm
Unforgiving prices in the fertilizer market have some growers looking to new ways to protect their profits. By focusing on efficiency, some growers may be turning to these new practices for good.
With fertilizer prices high, many growers are considering managing nitrogen as a way to reduce costs, improve nutrient use efficiency and increase ROI. By applying only what is needed and no more, growers can save on input costs without giving up yield — and they may end up reaping additional benefits as well.
“Growers are really in tune with the fluctuating nitrogen prices right now,” says Greg Driver, Southeast Regional Sales Manager at Sound. Greg explains that there are two ways for growers to win with SOURCEⓇ, Sound’s microbiome activator: to manage their nitrogen application while maintaining yield or to provide a yield boost without cutting nitrogen. In previous years, most growers were interested in yield boosts rather than nitrogen reduction, he says. “Now, when I ask growers which way they would like to use SOURCE to win, almost 75% percent of them say they want to look into nitrogen reduction.”
“This year, every conversation is about how growers are going to make money and what expenses they can scale back on,” adds Aimee Burke, Sound’s Northeast Regional Sales Manager based in Massachusetts. “The cost of inputs is up 200 or 300% over last year. Usually, when there’s a lift in the commodity price, growers can get a decent price on their bushels, but it’s not enough that it can offset their input costs right now.”
Thanks to synthetic fertilizers, nitrogen has provided growers with a sense of security while keeping yields high. But there is another way for growers to control the nutrients available to their crops, and it’s right under our feet.
Agriculture is a challenging industry with significant input costs and an ROI that can vary based on factors beyond growers’ control. As a result, many growers are understandably hesitant to reduce their nitrogen applications, something they have control over. Thanks to synthetic fertilizers, nitrogen has provided growers with a sense of security while keeping yields high. But there is another way for growers to control the nutrients available to their crops, and it’s right under our feet.
“Growers are really interested in seeing how SOURCE can get more out of the soil, because that’s where the nutrients are tied up,” says Aimee. “Either the microbes aren’t working optimally or growers have nutrients that are locked in there, but there is all this potential beneath the soil.”
The Biome Below
Soil health relies on a complex, interacting web of life that includes fungi, bacteria and plants. A complete web is necessary in order to maintain the beneficial physical characteristics a healthy microbiome provides, such as soil structure, water retention and reduced erosion. When the microbiome thrives, growers can tap into the natural processes below the soil to unlock access to nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus for their crops.
The symbiotic relationships between plants and microbes are the most important for growers. These organisms communicate with each other and trade resources: plants provide fungi and bacteria with sugars made through photosynthesis in exchange for plant-available forms of key nutrients.
By mimicking the signal plants send to soil microbes through their roots, SOURCE activates and strengthens the relationship between plants and microbes, allowing growers to benefit from the nitrogen fixing and phosphorus solubilizing power of the soil microbiome.
Enhancing the Performance Optimizer
Working with growers to understand their operation is key, Greg says. “We are completely honest with our growers. We want to know their pushbacks and concerns, and it’s a region-specific conversation.” Understanding each farm’s specific strengths, challenges and procedures allows Greg to help growers find a place for SOURCE in their operational plan and ensure a strong ROI.
Last year, Sound launched the Performance Optimizer, which allows growers to input key soil characteristics to understand where SOURCE will perform best on their farm. As nitrogen application and over-application gain more attention in the industry because of the negative impacts to both the soil microbiome and the environment, Sound continues to examine how nitrogen and other soil characteristics interact. Now, in addition to pH, CEC and OM, Sound has added a target nitrogen rate to the Performance Optimizer to better understand where SOURCE will provide the highest benefit, as well as a yield goal where growers can enter what they are hoping to achieve for a particular field.
“SOURCE is a tool in your toolbox, not a blanket, spray everywhere product,” says Aimee. “We’re not operating in a silo, we want to know how you farm. Do you do strip till or no till? Do you use cover crops? How much are you putting in the soil? What does your soil profile look like? We really make an effort to dig in and look under the hood.”
Using soil conditions to guide the application of SOURCE will provide growers with the best yield boost and the highest ROI. SOURCE performs best and provides the greatest yield lift when applied in targeted locations where nitrogen isn’t applied in excess.
Applying more nitrogen than the crop can utilize not only cuts into growers’ ROI, it can have negative environmental impacts and damage the relationship between the plant and the soil microbiome. In the soil, excess nitrogen is converted by microbes into nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2. It can also be carried by runoff and erosion into water bodies, where it contributes to the overgrowth of harmful algae.
For growers, the most immediate concern is the impact on the soil microbiome. Because the symbiotic connection between plants and microbes is so strong, overapplication of fertilizer can prevent the soil microbiome from functioning at peak efficiency. When plants receive an excess of nutrients like nitrogen, they don’t release the root exudates their below-ground microbial partners need, and without those signals, the microbiome weakens.
“When plants no longer need to get nutrients through the natural plant-soil interactions because there is an increased availability from synthetic fertilizer, they slow their release of root exudates,” says Sarah Taylor, Sales Agronomist. “Those exudates serve as both attractants and a food source to microbes — they’re the dinner bell and the dinner. When there’s less food available, the microbes aren’t as prevalent in the root zone.”
A weak soil microbiome not only reduces the availability of nutrients to the plants, it also results in the loss of those beneficial physical characteristics that combat erosion, protect the soil from structural and nutrient degradation, and maintain moisture levels.
Reliable Nutrient Delivery
Traditionally, growers have been understandably hesitant to reduce their nitrogen use; when a single season can make or break an operation, fertilizer can feel like a grower’s lifeline.
Think of nitrogen like gas for a car, says Aimee. “If you have to get from point A to point B, there’s no option for failure — this is your livelihood. That’s how much nitrogen is tied into a farmer’s operation,” she says. “But at some point, if the prices are too high, I can’t go as far as I want to go because I just can’t afford it. When that’s the case, maybe it’s finally time to try a different fuel that can get you farther.”
But by promoting and preserving a robust soil microbiome, growers can build more resilient operations, whatever the price of nitrogen. Backed by data and with a focus on microbiome health, Greg says SOURCE offers growers the chance to reliably do more with less. “Considering nitrogen’s skyrocketing prices, and with our data and the Performance Guarantee backing us up, there are so many ways to fit SOURCE into a grower’s crop plan,” he says.
SOURCE’s reliability and sustainability are backed by significant research and data, which is always ongoing, says Aimee. “We’re a data-driven company. We have third party data and we’ve done hundreds of trials,” she says. “We want to equip growers with knowledge and tools to feel comfortable to take the next step in nitrogen reduction — this is a journey we’re on together.”