The Best Ways for Fruit Growers To Neutralize Fertilizer Costs

The cost of fertilizer — and how growers are alleviating the issue — dominated the topic of crop nutrition in American Fruit Grower’s State of the Industry survey this year. Frustrated readers have responded by reducing the amount of fertilizer used, switching to cheaper formulations, using more manure and compost, and employing different application techniques, such as foliar feeding.

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What do the companies on the other side of the issue recommend? We interviewed several crop nutrition suppliers in search of their best practices.

Lorne Bienstock (Managing Partner, Agro-100 Global):

“The prices of commodity fertilizers have come down significantly in the past year. That being said, while there are less expensive options, they will not replace soil-applied dry/liquid fertilizers. As for foliar feeding, it has always been considered a “nice-to-have” and not a “must-have” because of the higher costs associated with such products. The problem is that these products have been used as a corrective measure once a deficiency already presents itself and not as a preventative measure to avoid deficiencies. Once a deficiency presents itself, the yield loss is guaranteed. What if, however, a company, such as Agro-100, can clearly demonstrate the efficacy of foliar fertilizers and a significant increase in ROI for the grower? It’s worth spending the extra money if it guarantees increased profits for the grower. Cheaper formulations will not yield the same results. You get what you pay for. 

Karl Wyant (Director of Agronomy, Nutrien):

“Starting in 2021, we have witnessed challenges in the fertilizer markets that range from the war in Ukraine, economic sanctions, poor weather, sharp energy and transport cost increases, and fertilizer production curtailments. Unfortunately, each major nutrient class (NPK) has not come out of this without experiencing some degree of volatility. At the farm gate, this volatility is felt in the wallet as global markets respond to changes in supply and demand. As with any dynamic market, there are cyclical highs and lows, which can have an impact on use in the field.  

Growers have responded to volatility in a few different ways. Briefly, growers have responded by reducing or eliminating some fertilizer applications, changing sources, or employing products that offer improvements in fertilizer use efficiency, which are examined below.  

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“First, some growers have elected to reduce or cut back on their fertilizer applications in response to higher input prices. Under most conditions, drastic cuts to a fertilizer program will eventually impact yield. Furthermore, some aggressive fertilizer curtailments, like those with nitrogen, will be felt at the yield level more quickly than phosphate and potash due to the intensity of the nutrient loss pathways and overall demand by the crop during the season. By aligning yield goals with annual fertilizer planning and soil/tissue tests, a grower can make reasonable decisions that help support yield goals and eliminate wasted input dollars.  

“Secondly, some growers have turned to local compost and manure markets as a source of plant nutrients. These nutrient sources are a viable option, but there are always concerns about trucking logistics since manures and composts are applied in the tons-per-acre rate as opposed to the pounds-per-acre rate that we see in the modern NPK fertilizers. The rate difference is attributed to fewer nutrients per pound of applied material in composts and manures as opposed to something like urea or monoammonium phosphate (MAP). Furthermore, composts/manures can have a considerable range in their NPK analysis, which makes fertilizer planning hard. If using these types of materials, a good test of manure/composts can be invaluable to help translate the nutrient properties of the input source to best match crop nutrient uptake budgets.  

“Finally, some growers have also turned to product solutions that advertise improved uptake efficiency and/or have claims regarding the ability to cut back on nutrient use. These products and claims should be examined in detail and aligned with the overall nutrient budget of a crop. Furthermore, soil, tissue and irrigation water tests can help quantify the need for the product or double check the claims after application. In one example, a foliar product can be a great choice for supplementing crop nutrient plans, particularly during periods of heavy uptake demand or when other rides to the field are available (e.g., fungicide sprays).  

“Data is a great tool to help with planning and management. A solid set of soil samples and updated forecasts for nutrient needs based on recent yield goals can help fine-tune fertilizer applications to help eliminate excess spending where it’s not needed. Moreover, a crop adviser can be an invaluable team member to help with the planning and execution of an updated crop nutrient plan and help with interpreting the test reports.” 

Larry Stauber (Technical Development Manager, Verdesian Life Sciences):

“A grower considering reduced fertilizer amounts and/or less expensive fertilizer can include manures and even foliar feeding supplements. Something to consider would be enhancing synthetic fertilizers with products that give you increased efficiency. With these known efficiency products, you preserve the applied nutrients, such as phosphorus or nitrogen. These additives offer season-long benefits for the crop. Some of the newer advanced technologies to consider would include polymers and NBPT/DCD combinations that can help keep your nitrogen in the plant-usable forms while at the same time prevent excess losses later in the year — in heavy crop load and during the primary growth of trees and vines. That’s when you want it available — not all up front. For manures, the nutrients are typically on the front end — and excess losses could take place, whereas fertilizer enhancers can offer season-long plant available nutrients. With phosphorus, the efficiency is very low — maybe only 25% is available to the crop. Using polymers and some bioactive components could help soil mineralization and help and protect and allow that phosphorus to be available all season-long. Finally, foliar feeding can include available plant food, but some may have biostimulant additives that can further help that crop become more efficient with limited fertilizer inputs.” 

Rodrigo Bermudez, Director of Sales, West, Locus AG):

Consider incorporating biological use. Conventional and organic fertilizer inputs are seeing a number of price fluctuations due to a variety of factors, including supply chain issues, geo-politics, and regulatory. In addition, traditional fertilizer approaches can have hidden costs through the need for excess applications, put a long-term strain on the environment and overall soil fertility, and may have compliance challenges with state and federal application rates. As these factors cause growers to reevaluate their strategies, it’s best that they look at incorporating other more sustainable options that focus on improving soil vitality. One example of this is biologicals. We advocate for integrating biologicals into fertility programs to enhance yield, optimize nutrient utilization and bolster financial resilience. Relying solely on conventional or organic fertilizers can lead to unwarranted price pressures and hinder long-term sustainability. Biologicals have proven to be invaluable in amplifying ROI.”

Biologicals play an important brokerage role with both conventional and organic bulk fertilizers by metabolizing more of the nutrients and making them more available to the plant. Biologicals can help unlock and utilize unused inputs already in the soil from previous applications, plus increase nutrient uptake on all future inputs. This streamlines the grower’s investment and reduces their reliance on large volumes of fertilizers. This multifaceted approach not only curtails procurement costs but also minimizes hidden expenses associated with transportation, storage, and hedging against price fluctuations, and provides more efficient use of what is actually purchased.  

Certain biological strains have been proven to significantly boost yields, making more dollars available for growers to supplement shrinking margins and rising fertilizer costs. These specific vital strains can also help prevent yield loss when pulling back on fertilizer use.  

Evaluate data on new inputs: Most growers have little wiggle room in their fertility programs or credit lines they have with their lenders, so it’s important to select inputs that will provide the best ROI and have the most effective roles in plant productivity. Reduced applications, cheaper formulations or unproven practices may seem like a practical way to cut costs, but they can ultimately result in lower ROI.  

When reviewing a new input, always look at independent data on the specific ingredients. Certain biologicals, like those developed by Locus Agriculture, are backed by independent, third-party data conducted by Contract Research Organizations (CROs).  

Employing biologicals addresses the broader ecological and regulatory aspects of crop management. By reducing excess applications, minimizing environmental impact and promoting soil fertility, growers can align their practices with regulatory requirements and take on a more sustainable approach to specialty crop production.  

Jon Treloar (Technical Agronomist, Novozymes BioAg):

“Current challenges in feeding crops are more acute than they have been in years. New solutions to crop fertility are being developed. As we have seen in crop protection with an integrated approach (IPM), integrated fertility management is becoming a reality. As traditional fertilizer prices rise and supply becomes more and more disrupted, growers are going to need to rely on more than just traditional fertilizer products to feed their crops. There are a number of tools from the ag-biological sector that can help. Phosphorus solubilizing organisms can provide otherwise unavailable phosphorus to plants and have been effectively used for over 30 years. These organisms also help make traditional phosphorus fertilizers more efficient as they free up soil-bound phosphorus fertilizer in addition to soil phosphorus. Other tools, such as signal molecules, can be applied foliar or to the soil. Molecules such as LCO (lipo-chitoligosaccharide) have multiple modes of beneficial action to crop fertility. They open stomata and allow the upregulation of photosynthesis. In the soil, they increase the germination of mycorrhizae as well as the association with the crop. While these tools cannot be relied on solely to feed the crops, they can be used within an integrated approach to crop fertility and, in many cases, importantly increase the efficiency of traditional fertilizers.” 

Zack Ogles (Manager of Agronomy, Crop Vitality/Tessenderlo Kerley):

“While fertilizer prices have improved from the record highs seen in 2022, it is still important for growers to get the most out of their fertilizer investment. One way that growers can improve nitrogen use efficiency is by preventing losses to the environment. Losses through leaching and denitrification can all be reduced by using a nitrification inhibitor. One cost-effective way of accomplishing this is by adding thiosulfate-based fertilizers to liquid nitrogen applications. Thiosulfate-S has been shown to slow the nitrification process, keeping more of the nitrogen in the stable ammonium form. This can be accomplished simply by adding sulfur nutrition that is already required to produce a quality crop.” 

Jason Haegele (North American Agronomy Lead, ICL Growing Solutions):

“Growers are under increasing pressure to better understand how they can optimize ROI from all inputs, not just fertilizer inputs. Although the knee-jerk reaction is to reduce application rates or source less-costly options, ultimately what is most important is the ROI from an input, not necessarily how much it costs to begin with. As an example, formulation can make all the difference in the world for foliar uptake of micronutrients. Applying a less costly micronutrient product can cut costs upfront, but what is actually gained if the nutrients are not taken up by the plant to affect either yield or quality? Understanding how to optimize ROI along with yield and quality goals involves a 4R nutrient management mindset but also partnering with the right consultants, university experts, or industry representatives who can provide sound science-backed data to their recommendations.” 

Philip Kayal (Vice President of Operations/Business Development, Rogitex):

“Looking at nutrition as an integral part of the ecosystem and improving the environment in which plants are grown (i.e., the soil) has enormous benefits for the plant. Research shows that leaching can account for up to 60% of soil nutrient loss; in other words, for every $100 spent on fertilizer/nutrients, up to $60 may be lost due to leaching. Considering such information, in addition to the soaring fertilizer prices, it can be very stressful for growers to see the money they invest in their fields disappear like that. We have found that helping growers look for solutions that will help reduce leaching has brought significant long-term advantages to their farming operations. 

“We often hear and read about soil health, which is not a coincidence. Increased soil health improves soil structure and its capacity to retain nutrients. Minor adjustments in growing practices or incorporating new products that promote soil health development can go a long way. Suggesting drastic changes in farming practices can be overwhelming; hence, we try to avoid that. In exchange, easing into it is less stressful. Gradual changes are easy to measure and can create long-lasting habits. 

“Soil health encompasses several things that work together to improve the soil’s environment, such as the interactions of soil structure, soil moisture, and soil microbial activity. 

“Creating structure enables the soil to retain nutrients, reducing potential leaching. Building soil structure may differ from one soil type to the next. A grower with clay soil will want to mitigate compaction, whereas a grower with sandy soil wants to increase its structure. How can we remediate this if we encounter both soil types in the same operation? Essentially, the goal is to increase the soil organic matter, the building block for soil health.  

“Soil organic matter can hold up to 10 times its weight in water content, exponentially increasing the soil’s capacity to retain moisture. We have learned over the years by working closely with growers and examining the results that by building structure and increasing the ability to retain moisture, we fundamentally reduced the leaching factor and created a nutrient-retaining mechanism. Achieving this daunting task requires soil microbial activity, but there are easy ways to accomplish that. 

“The microbiology acts as a recycler consuming ‘organic residue’ left on the soil to transform it into humus, a form of stable organic matter. Humus becomes the food nourishing the soil biology. Microbially diverse soil is soil that is resilient and has an increased capacity to cycle nutrients effectively. Microbially active soil promotes plant root hair development, which increases plants’ access to nutrients due to the roots’ increased surface area and microbial symbiotic interactions. These interactions increase nutrient cycling and improve nutrient availability and retention. 

“Attending to the soil by incorporating some easy techniques can bring enormous benefits to any operation. Contrary to popular belief, this can be achieved within a harvest while being cost-effective and appeasing growers’ frustrations about rising fertilizer prices.” 

Abe Isaak (Agronomist, AgroLiquid):

“Prices of fertilizer inputs have been frustrating for everyone — the grower, dealer, and manufacturer. Reducing the amount of fertilizer used can be an effective budgeting strategy if it is based on good agronomics. Starting with a good soil test is imperative, as it provides the roadmap of where you are starting and helps manage where you will go during the growing season. Getting a good understanding of the inventory of nutrients in your soil will be critical in determining what trade-offs should be made. If you work with a crop nutrition expert, they can be helpful in working through the trade-offs. A lot of questions must be answered to determine what nutrients will make the biggest impact, and someone with strong crop nutrition skills can determine the impact of soil issues, cultural practices, and available assets for applications and timing. All these variables combine to provide a good cost-benefit analysis. Diminishing returns can happen when pushing the yield envelop. It’s easy to let achieving gross revenue through maximum yield production drive a decision because it’s a simple calculation. The best utilization of fertilizer in a year when it is expensive may be a little below maximum yield, where each nutrient input is leveraged into maximum production. 

“Growers who have micro sprinklers or drip irrigation can make multiple applications during the season and change the formulations to match the need of the crop at the time of applications. Multiple applications will help minimize leaching and volatilization into the atmosphere. While choosing the least expensive option of a nutrient is enticing, the problem is that they are very inefficient. The plant can use between 15% to 30%, and the rest is either tied up in the soil or leaches out of the root zone with rain and irrigation. The less expensive option suddenly becomes costly, as it has a significant impact on quality and yield of the crop.  

“Compost and manures can be a great tool for crop nutrition. However, just like with any fertilizer, growers need to be aware of some factors that impact the release of nutrients from these tools. It’s important to know the carbon/nitrogen ratio in the soil before compost or manure is applied. A soil test analysis can provide this ratio, but you may have to request the lab provide this information when you submit the soil test. The carbon/nitrogen ratio ideally should be 10:1. The more carbon you have in the soil, the slower the nitrogen releases. When this ratio gets closer together, the nitrogen releases much sooner. So, if a grower applies compost in the fall, and their soil is short on carbon, the nitrogen may be released before the crop can use it, and it can be volatilized or leached through the soil profile with rain and irrigation water. Soil biology will also impact how fast or slow the compost is broken down into nutrients the plant can use.  

“Another tool growers can use is foliar feeding. Solubility is without question the most important issue with foliar nutrients. Can the plant uptake the nutrient in the form it is applied? A fertilizer specially formulated for foliar application may cost more per gallon, but you do not apply it nearly as much, and your ROI is better. While it is very difficult to feed a crop with foliar alone — the plant just can’t take enough nutrients in through the foliage as it can through the roots — it is a tool that helps get needed nutrients in quickly during a particular growth stage.” 

Rick de Jong (International Business Development Manager, Agro-K Corp.):

We help growers apply the 5 R’s of plant nutrition: right nutrient, right time, right form, right place, and right mix. These are core fundamental principles to responsible crop fertilization. The better we can apply these principles, the better the outcomes on the farm. We often see better quality crops, higher crop yields, healthier plants, and more efficient fertilizer usage. Foliar fertilizers, liquid and granular soil-based fertilizers, manures, and composts are all valued options when working to meet the needs of the crop. Each grower should evaluate and select the fertilizer options that best suit their operation. But don’t make compromises with the quality of your fertilizer product choices, which can often hurt the crop and your bottom line. Instead let Agro-K’s 5 R’s of plant nutrition help you focus on fertilizer efficiencies that can grow the bottom line.” 

Steven Williams, Facility Manager, Hendersonville, NC, Nutrien Ag Solutions):

“The most effective way to meet the nutritional needs of apple trees is to tailor the fertility program to what the soil and trees need. First, we need to take a soil sample early in the year. Later in the growing season, we can take leaf samples. The results show what nutrients are available, what needs to be added and in what quantity. Lime or gypsum are usually needed yearly. We recommend a soil-applied liquid fertilizer and micronutrient blend in March along with dry fertilizer as needed. The liquid fertilizer is already soluble and moves to the roots much faster than granular fertilizer. The old shotgun approach of spreading several hundred pounds per acre of the same dry blend every year is often more expensive and less effective. Then growers will then need to foliar feed the trees throughout the growing season. This includes NPK fertilizer and micronutrients, such as NutriSync calcium and boron. Finally, biostimulants to promote tree growth and blooms, such as Radiate and Terramar, are foliar applied as needed. We have seen good results using this targeted fertility approach in apple orchards and research stations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and New York.” 

Kevin Johnson (Owner, Microbial Science Laboratories):

“I have been selling microbe formulas to the greenhouse industry for years. They are seeing higher yields, less disease, larger plants, larger root systems, less abiotic stress, etc. For some reason vegetable growers or farmers in general don’t believe in microbes. They all want to change the soil mix. Let me give an example of our No. 1 seller and how it benefits the plants. It is called Microbe Remedy. It contains 64 beneficial soil microbes with over 1.5 billion CFU per gram. Basically, what we are doing is outcompeting the bad microbes and feeding the plant more efficiently. Microbe Remedy contains nitrogen-fixing bacteria-fungi. This pulls nitrogen right out of the air and converts it to ammonia so the plant can pick it up. In a corn study we trialed, it increased the nitrogen by 14%, eliminating the need for a second application of nitrogen. Microbe Remedy also contains phosphorous and mineral-solubilizing bacteria. This breaks up the locked-up chains of phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, etc., in the soil, and makes them all plant available. During drought conditions, plants produce too much ethylene, which can age the plant quickly and even kill it. Some of our microbes in Microbe Remedy produce an enzyme that blocks the excess ethylene production, bringing the plant out of abiotic stress. Using Microbe Remedy, the greenhouses see a dramatic increase in plant nutrition, which they would see in farm fields as well. Those are some of the benefits of Microbe Remedy. Microbe Remedy also helps prevent soil diseases. It can also be dusted on seed just before planting. Microbes are inexpensive.” 

Treloar (Novozymes BioAg):

“There are a plethora of new products on the market making numerous claims. It is important for growers to be able to differentiate the good products from the bad. It is important to look for products that are grounded in science, agronomy, and data to support the claims. Are the active ingredients well studied and understood? What are the modes of action? And are there scientific publications to support the claims? Do the products fit easily into current agronomic practices? Are they easy for the grower to use? Finally, is there reputable data to back the product claims? By examining the science, agronomy, and data behind the products, growers can make informed decisions about crop inputs, helping them provide fertility to the crop.” 

 

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