High fertiliser prices, more precision

Fertiliser prices have spiked worldwide. - Photo: Roel Dijkstra
Fertiliser prices have spiked worldwide. - Photo: Roel Dijkstra

High fertiliser prices are a very serious issue right now for farmers in both the developed and developing world. This lends urgency for the development of new technology and products that provide more precise application.

Due to international shipping jams and increased fuel prices, fertiliser prices have spiked worldwide, which puts yields in various degrees of jeopardy for farmers around the globe. However, high prices will also drive adoption and further innovation of new precision fertiliser products and application technologies in 2022.

Price of ammonia is now up 255%

There are recent reports that the price of ammonia is now up 255% globally compared to 2020. In the US, ammonia has reached $ 1,000 or more per ton compared to $ 495 per ton last year. Recently in Australia, the price of fertilisers such as monoammonium and diammonium phosphate reached a record $ 1,320 USD per tonne for purchase, freight and discharge, which has risen significantly since August. Industry representatives and politicians in that country recently held a fertiliser industry roundtable to discuss the potential for large-scale domestic manufacturing of fertiliser within perhaps five years.

Higher fuel prices

Looking at the big picture, Dr. Matt Stockton notes that fuel is a large input for fertiliser production, and higher fuel prices therefore have a direct impact on fertiliser prices. “There are of course various ways to make fertiliser, but you have to produce large amounts of heat for part of the process,” explains Stockton, who is an associate professor and extension agricultural economist at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. “There’s also extraction of raw materials and then production and shipment. There’s a shortage right now due to shipping issues and I’m not sure how much that’s also driving up prices, but hopefully the shipping issues will be sorted out soon.”

History suggests that fertiliser prices can change rapidly

PhD economists Gary Schnitkey, Nick Paulson, and Krista Swanson at the University of Illinois and Carl Zulauf at Ohio State University recently wrote a report examining fertiliser prices over the last few decades. They conclude that prices were highest in 2008, and in 2022, they are unlikely to exceed that, but will be well above average. “History suggests that fertiliser prices can change rapidly, likely bringing modifications to fertiliser cost projections,” they state. “Further, note that several periods of sharp declines have occurred in history.”

Precision fertiliser application methods and products

The continued gradual increase in fertiliser costs over the years, along with higher on-farm fuel and labour costs, have driven interest in precision fertiliser application methods and products. And whilst the recent sharp rise in fertiliser prices brings the issue to a new level, Michael Wudonig, spokesperson for German fertiliser firm K+S Aktiengesellschaft, believes that tightening laws to avoid excess release of nutrients into the environment is “the main driver for the switch to better application technology.”

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The continued gradual increase in fertiliser costs over the years, along with higher on-farm fuel and labour costs, have driven interest in precision fertiliser application methods and products. - Photo: Ruud Ploeg
The continued gradual increase in fertiliser costs over the years, along with higher on-farm fuel and labour costs, have driven interest in precision fertiliser application methods and products. - Photo: Ruud Ploeg

Three areas

Higher precision in fertiliser use is centered on three areas: application technology, products and genetics.

  1. Application Technology – Part of precision application is to detect nutrient levels in soil and only apply what is needed to meet plant needs for the target yield. The latest soil probe technologies now allow growers to do real-time measurements of nutrients, pH and more, with wireless transmission to the technology platform. In some cases, every measurement can be used to instantaneously create the most accurate maps to guide application.
    Wudonig and his colleagues at K+S expect that further digitalization and refinement of technology to continue, “with increased use of satellites, which are becoming better and better in their resolution, and other aids such as drones to determine the need for fertilization of the smallest areas within fields and further precision of application.”
    In addition, fertiliser application technologies are allowing more targeted foliar and soil delivery of nutrients. Use of fertigation (fertilized irrigation water) is also growing in various countries for select high-value crops; this places fertiliser directly in the root zone, trimming losses to negligible levels.
  2. New products – fertiliser companies continue to create and refine product technologies that deliver nutrients in new, more precise ways. Some of the tech development strategies are focussed on slow release and others on boosted nutrient uptake for example, but overall it’s a highly-competitive and proprietary environment where information is hard to come by.
    Looking at the big picture, Ed Thomas, vice president of government affairs at US-based ‘The fertiliser Institute’ notes that it’s an exciting time for precision products. “The field is diverse and complicated and the products, especially microbial products, will only become more efficient,” he says. “As an organization, we’re doing our best to support companies to be able to make specific claims in the marketplace for new and already-established products. Many products have been on the market a long time and haven’t been able to make claims beyond ‘fertiliser.’”
    Thomas attended the ‘Bio-stimulant World Congress’ in early December (this year in Florida, US) and notes that the number of vendors has doubled in size compared to the last congress.
  3. Genetics – As time progresses, plants themselves will improve in terms of nutrient uptake due to breeding for these traits or the use of genetic tools such as gene editing. A group of researchers in New York have now more accurately predicted which corn hybrids are better at using nitrogen. Many key crop traits are genetically complex and the research is therefore been difficult, but big data and systems level thinking are now allowing more insight.
    Dr. Gloria Coruzzi and Dr. Chia-Yi Cheng of NY Univeristy’s Center for Genomics and Systems Biology explain that “our approach, based on machine learning models, prioritized a list of plant genes using their importance score in predicting nitrogen use efficiency (NUE), an index to measure the efficiency of plants that can utilize fertiliser to make biomass. We validated the role of these genes in NUE in plants by ‘mutation analysis’ of nine genes, eight tested in the model plant Arabidopsis and one gene in maize.”
    “For the maize gene, we compared NUE in an inbred mutant in the gene which is missing the gene function, and compared it to a wild-type (non-mutant) inbred corn,” they explain. “The field data showed that the maize mutant accumulated less N, yet produced higher grain biomass with a better NUE. We hypothesize this gene might have influenced how seeds sense and respond to the N level in the whole plant. As a result, the mutant required less N to promote grain growth. Accumulating evidence has begun to support that N remobilization within the plant, namely the transport of N from leaf to developing seed, is critical for the grain yield. This maize mutant is clearly an example for that scenario.”
Hein
Treena Hein Correspondent for Canada
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