Applying fertilizer is the conventional practice in production agriculture. Growers are using combinations of natural nutrient cycling (soil biology, microbial interactions) and synthetic/chemical fertilizers to feed their crops. The question is, does synthetic/chemical fertility work with natural nutrient cycling?
These two approaches are not generally complementary and should be prioritized for the greatest benefit on yield, soil health and reducing nutrient runoff.
Here is the suggested priority:
1. Use Natural Nutrient Cycling as the primary fertility method.
- At or prior to planting, inoculate soil with beneficial microbes. (Use compost, cover crops, and/or a liquid microbial extract.)
- At planting, feed the microbes by applying a biofertilizer (primarily amino acids and complex carbohydrates) to grow the microbial biomass and optimize soil functionality to provide crop nutrients.
2. Use Synthetic/Chemical Fertility as supplemental fertility.
- Apply later in the crop cycle at peak nutrient demand.
- Use leaf tissue sampling to determine if nutrients are needed and how much.
- Apply fertility in small doses, ideally foliar, for the highest nutrient uptake efficiency in the leaves of the plant while allowing nature to continue to recycle and feed plant roots.
3. Use a biostimulant to optimize crop and fertility performance.
- Biostimulants stimulate plant metabolism to improve crop vigor, yields, quality and postharvest shelf life.
Why Promote Natural Nutrient Cycling First? If conventional growers want the benefits of soil health and sustainability, they should use natural nutrient cycling as the primary fertility method and not synthetic/chemical application at the same time for the best results.
Natural nutrient cycling is the conversion, by microbes, of organic and inorganic matter into plant-usable proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Plants exchange energy (root exudates) with soil microbes for nutrients. The objective is to utilize this natural benefit to the greatest extent possible for soil health and sustainable crop production.
This means applying a microbial extract or inoculant and biofertilizer at the beginning of each crop cycle. It is important to understand that the applied amount is not based on the traditional N-P-K measurement. Instead, it is establishing sufficient microbial numbers in the soil to be sure the nutrient cycling is functional. A few gallons of biofertilizer can be as effective as dozens of gallons of synthetic/chemical fertilizers. By relying on natural nutrient cycling as the primary fertility approach, we can provide the primary crop nutrient needs, while being assured that our soil health and functionality are improving.
If a synthetic/chemical application is applied with a biological inoculant and feed strategy at the beginning of the crop cycle, natural nutrient cycling is weakened and often lost, soil health declines and money is lost from yield loss and ineffective input costs.
Why Shift Synthetic/Chemical Fertility to a Supplemental Role? We simply must do a better job of matching up the crop nutrient needs with application timing to minimize the impact on natural nutrient cycling. When seeking an economical means of compliance with emerging fertility runoff and percolation regulations, prioritization of fertility methods must lean towards natural nutrient cycling. Therefore, it is incumbent on conventional growers to use products that promote, rather than inhibit soil functionality.
This means applying synthetic/chemical fertilizers in low dose applications only when nutrient demand is highest during the crop cycle. For example, testing plant tissue for nutrient deficiencies can determine if added nutrients are required, then a foliar application (low dose compared to larger volume soil applied methods) can be tailored to the specific nutrient needs of the crop. Foliar applications are up to 99% metabolized, versus 10% to 40% of soil applied nitrogen.
A sustainable fertility strategy promotes functional soils through natural nutrient cycling, limits the use of synthetic/chemical fertility to peak nutrient demand, and adds biostimulants to optimize crop genetic potential.
Why Use a Biostimulant? Biostimulants stimulate the soil and plant growth throughout the crop cycle, from seed germination to plant maturity in several demonstrated ways, including but not limited to:
- Improving the efficiency of the plant’s metabolism to induce yield increases and enhance quality.
- Increasing plant tolerance to and recovery from abiotic stresses.
- Enhancing certain physiochemical properties of the soil and fostering the development of complementary soil microorganisms.
What distinguishes biostimulants from traditional crop inputs? Biostimulants operate through different mechanisms than fertilizers and are complementary to crop nutrition and crop protections.
If you aren’t factoring soil health and nutrient cycling into your fertility program you should strongly consider it. Let the soil and its microbes do some of the work feeding your crop and saving you money.
Ben Cloud is a co-founder and the Chief Operating Officer at Beem Biologics, Inc., with over 30 years of experience in diversified agriculture, farmland development, technology development and micro-irrigation. Beem Biologics is a product developer and manufacturer of biological compounds for the crop protection industry, providing biostimulants, biopesticides and biofertilizer for organic, sustainable and conventional agriculture, hydroponics, turf and landscape markets. Click to read more of Ben’s articles online.