CROP NUTRITION

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During the decades of the first Green Revolution (1.0), between the 1960’s & 1990’s, agricultural production increased three-fold on virtually the same area of land as at the beginning of this era, representing a remarkable achievement by farmers worldwide. It’s been estimated that application of fertilizers, based mainly upon nitrogen (N), contributed up to 45% of the increase with improved crop varieties and the control of major pests, diseases & weeds contributing the rest.

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Nevertheless in the decades ahead a growing global population will be seeking more and more food from farmers who will have to produce even higher yields again from the same area of land.

Yet again nitrogen (N) will have a crucial role to play in this second Green Revolution (2.0) but in future it will be equally important to use adequate and balanced applications of the other essential fertilizer nutrients to ensure maximum crop yields and quality.

At the same time farmers will be coming under increasing pressure to reduce their impact on the environment. Therefore there is a need to develop and apply Fertilizer Best Management Practices (FBMP’s) to improve Nutrient Use Efficiency (NUE) which consequently will help minimize the environmental foot-print of increasing agricultural production.

 

 

It is the intention that Kemnovation.com will provide access to a global network of sharing, building and improving knowledge-bases on the beneficial application of fertilizers and the underlying science of crop nutrition. It should also encourage discussion and collaboration to help develop open innovation platforms to support the sustainable intensification of agriculture in both developed and developing countries. Furthermore to enable the achievement of the dual goals of increasing agricultural productivity while at the same time reducing environmental impact. In other words to get ‘more for less’!

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The ‘Barrel Analogy’ has become a universal symbol in crop nutrition circles as it simply illustrates Justus von Liebig’s “Law of the Minimum” where the shortest barrel stave determines where final yield will end up

– until the appropriate growth factor is added!
 
Then the next short stave limits the yield – until added – and so on!
 
So maximum crop yield, or filling of the barrel, requires that all growth determinants, including all fertilizer nutrients, are fully satisfied and all the staves ‘reach the top’.
 
 

‘Crop Nutrition Rules’ say that there are at least 12 essential fertilizer nutrients for healthy growth and optimum crop yield and quality but most people usually think of fertilizer as nitrogen (N) and certainly this nutrient itself has played a major role in the huge increases in agricultural productivity seen since the 1960’s.

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Also it is usually granules of N that are seen flying from tractor mounted spinners in fields during springtime.

N fertilizer will certainly remain an important driver of Green Revolution 2.0 but there are at least another 11 nutrients which will require as much attention in future.

Nitrogen (N) itself is only one of the three primary nutrients; the others are phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) and all are required in relatively large quantities by crops usually 100’s of kilogrammes per hectare (Kg/Ha).

 

In addition to the three primary nutrients (N, P and K), there are three secondary nutrients comprising calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and sulphur (S) which are required in moderate amounts, typically 10’s Kg/Ha. Last but by no means least there are 6 micronutrients and though these are required in relatively small amounts by crops, typically 1’s Kg/Ha, they are just as essential as the primary and secondary fertilizer nutrients. Low yields or even complete crop failure are just as likely where there is a serious deficiency of a micronutrient, such as zinc (Zn), as with a shortage of a primary nutrient like N.

The key point here is that maximum crop yield and optimum quality in any situation can only be achieved if all 12 essential nutrients are present in adequate amounts and in the correct balance with each other for each crop – this is the science of Crop Nutrition.

As a result of the emphasis on N fertilizer use during Green Revolution 1.0, and the decades of cropping with less attention to the application of the other essential nutrients, large tracts of soils have been progressively ‘mined’ or ‘depleted’ of essential crop nutrients as shown in the bar chart below for India and Bangladesh.

More extensive laboratory analysis of soils in many countries has enabled the identification of soils with more and more nutrient levels falling below those required for sustaining good crop yield and quality.

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Other results of soil analysis, including extensive surveys in China, show similar trends in nutrient ‘mining’ of essential nutrients.

It is important to say that these soil surveys have been very influential in increasing the awareness and understanding of farmers and their advisors of the importance of adequate and balanced crop nutrition in sustaining crop yields.

 

 

In addition, the results of soil analysis provide the foundation for demonstrating the benefits of adequate and balanced fertilizer practices in terms of increased crop yields and profitability to farmers particularly in developing countries as shown below.

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The benefits of adequate and balanced fertiliser programmes, based on soil analysis, over and above the regular ‘rule-of-thumb’ farmers practices, increase crop yields by an average of 30%.

Although very important ‘locally’ for the farmers involved in this ground-breaking work, the International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA) calculated that the application of adequate and balanced fertilizer practices would generate an additional 11.7 million tonnes of food (and fibre from the cotton) at the national level in India.

 

 

 

It is important to note that crop yield increases obtained with adequate and balanced fertilization will also improve the efficiency of all the other inputs, such as the amount of water and any crop protection chemicals, used by the farmers in growing crops which indirectly reduces environmental impact. Therefore the dual benefits of increased yields per hectare with greater use efficiency of inputs, including fertilizer, result in a ‘more for less’ outcome.

With up to 12 essential fertilizer nutrients to consider in adequate and balanced crop nutrition programmes there are a wide variety of techniques available to apply fertilizers, some of which are long established and considered traditional and others that have appeared or have become more developed in recent decades.

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The traditional practice of spreading fertilizer, usually N, using a tractor mounted spinner is a very common sight in the fields of Western Europe in spring time as soils warm up and crops begin to germinate – a time they need a good dose of this primary nutrient to stimulate establishment and early growth.

Also during the season fertilizers can be regularly applied to growing crops as ‘top-dressings’.

Drilling (or placement) of fertilizers alongside seeds during sowing is also a common method of delivery and nowadays quite complex mixtures of crop nutrients, based on soil analysis, can be placed into the seed bed.

 

The practice of ‘minimum’ or ‘no-till’ agriculture where seeds and fertilizer are drilled directly into uncultivated soil is expanding rapidly in North and South  America and Europe.

Furthermore there has been an increase in more specialised fertilizer delivery systems which has followed the trend of innovation in crop nutrition product types.

Foliar applications, or sprays, deliver nutrients directly onto growing leaves and are most frequently used to supplement the traditional methods of fertilizer application particularly when crops are under stress and are unable to take up sufficient fertilizer nutrients from the soil.

Treatment or coating of seeds has focused primarily on fertilizer nutrients which are most important during germination and early crop establishment such as P and the micronutrients. As with foliar applications seed treatments can be supplementary to traditional methods but is becoming more widespread globally, particularly in developing countries where it is more attractive both practically and economically.

Impregnation employs chemical coating technologies to attach mainly micronutrients to N, P, or K fertilizer granules which are then applied via the traditional spreader or seed drill.

 

Fertigation is one of the most rapidly expanding areas of fertilizer delivery in global agriculture as it allows all the essential fertilizer nutrients to be applied dissolved in the irrigation water as and when they are needed by crops. Although early development of fertigation began in regions of water scarcity, it is now becoming more widespread in many countries particularly with high water demanding crops such as fruits and vegetables. All these newer delivery systems represent great opportunities for innovation in product types and application equipment to enable improvements in adequate and balanced fertilizer practices to increase nutrient use efficiency (NUE) and reduce environmental impact and give more for less!

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Adequate and balanced crop nutrition plays a key role in the maintainence of healthy, fertile soils as many have foreseen that there will be no real future for human-kind without them.

Though fortunately there are still many regions of the world with large tracts of healthy, fertile and very productive agricultural soils, there are many millions of hectares which become degraded and lost to farmers worldwide every year as a result of too little or no fertilizer!

Therefore it is essential that the productive soils are maintained in good condition, and that wherever possible degraded soils are rehabilitated, through the correct application of adequate and balanced fertiliser practices based on soil analysis.

 

It is important to remember that crop nutrients represent only the ‘chemical’ component of a soil’s character and this is in constant and dynamic inter-action with its living ‘biology’ as well as with the minerals and the water of its ‘physical’ nature. A good balance between these inseparable characteristics of any soil determines its health and fertility and it is important that each is managed and maintained at an optimum level to ensure good health and fertility to sustain future increases in crop production. 

 Crops These three components are inseparable resources within the ‘ecosystem’ of every soil and together they determine the yield, health and quality of the crops growing in them – and maintaining all of these components in top condition requires careful management and husbandry appropriate to the character of each.
Which does mean that a much greater and deeper understanding of the soil’s components and their inter-action with applied fertilizers will be critical to increasing agricultural productivity on little more land than is farmed today.
Kemnovation.com has been set up with the intention to engender a better and much wider appreciation, awareness and ultimately understanding of the importance of fertilizers and the wider use of adequate and balanced crop nutrition to help farmers everywhere meet future demands for more and better food – while helping them to minimise their environmental impact – and achieve more with less!

Furthermore it is hoped that Kemnovation.com will encourage the sharing of knowledge and foster collaboration and open innovation to help improve crop nutrition practices and contribute to ‘filling the barrel’ for a growing planet.