Home Fertilizer Fact or Fiction?

Fact or Fiction?

By Alexis Kienlen

Top dressings, biostimulants, foliar fungicides and more. These are just a few of the products available to farmers. However, with so many products on the market it is easy to get confused sorting out what works and what may just be a flashy label. What’s kind of rigour are behind such products? What works, and what’s the equivalent to pouring money down the drain?

Ray Dowbenko, an independent agronomist from Calgary, Alta., believes part of the puzzle is determining what the problem is in the crop. Products only work if there is a need for them, he said.

Biostimulants activate the plant and change how it responds to the environment, in cases of drought stress, cold stress or heat stress.

“They regulate different genes in the crops and may be beneficial in certain cases,” he says.

“With biostimulants and other products out there, you need to really understand their mechanism and mode of action, and then decide, ‘do you really need this?’”

Anyone who wants to use a biostimulant, top dressing or fungicide should look into information about nitrogen and phosphorus, soil testing, limiting factors and how applying nutrients can affect the crop.

Dowbenko says there’s now a cornucopia of products available, including those from other countries that were not previously available in Canada. Select products contain proteins and amino acids, or humic acids, which are derived from organic matter.

Other biostimulants include mycorrhizae or bacteria that may be used for tried and true actions, such as inoculating soybeans with nitrogen-fixing bacteria that helps the plant make its own nitrogen.

If a farmer wants to use a product, they or their crop advisor should look at the scientific literature. When appraising a product, scientists look at research done over multiple years, at multiple locations and in different soil types and environments. They base their answers off that data.

“It’s kind of wrong to say [a product] doesn’t work for everybody. There’s always something that will work for somebody,” says Dowbenko.

In order to make sure the product is a good fit, it’s good to check who has done the research on the product, and verify whether the research has been done by an independent third party, or by the company itself.

“Use caution and look for independent, third party, replicated research. Look for trials and statistical analysis that has been done over many years. Look for analysis in different soils, in different soil types and of course, different crops,” he says.

It’s also good to check how long the product has been around. If a product offers a long-term benefit for the farmer, it will continue to be in the marketplace. If not, it will eventually disappear, says Dowbenko.

It is also a prudent idea to check and see if the product was tested in your area, or an area with similar growing conditions, otherwise the results could be irrelevant for a farmer’s region.

In addition, the product has to be registered with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to be sold in Canada. This registration also means the product is safe for humans, animals and the environment. The label should say how the product is supposed to work and list active ingredients.

If a farmer finds a product they are interested in, they may consider a trial test at their own farm.

“Target the product in the area where it fits and not in other areas,” says Dowbenko.

He says some of the products work and others do not, but it is not necessary to dismiss them all right away.

“Find the right situation where it can be used. It could be beneficial. It’s just about finding out where it works,” he says.

Jeff Schoenau a professor of soil science at the University of Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan ministry of agriculture soil nutrient management chair. His area of expertise is in the foliar application of nutrients.

Schoenau recommended talking to the experts, asking questions to agronomists and crop consultants. Farmers should also be prepared to delve into the literature about the products they intend to use.

“If this is a product for which there is existing scientific research, the documentation should be available to demonstrate its efficacy,” he says.

Like Dowbenko, Schoenau advised looking into the product history, and checking for independent research evaluations and scientific literature. In particular cases, other farmers or research associations may have conducted different on-farm testing of the treatment.

“Keep in mind that some products will perform well under some environmental conditions, but others won’t,” he says. “Trying to get information relevant to your own conditions is valuable. Ask lots of questions. In fairness, some products may have a limited suite of research validation available, because they’re relatively new.”

A little bit of information can help a farmer decide whether the product is suitable for them.

Schoenau said that in some cases, neighbours might also have had good experience with the product. Farmers should look for products that work on the crops they have, and in similar conditions to what they have on their farms.

“Something that was efficacious in North Carolina may not be efficacious in Western Canada,” he says. “That’s important to ascertain to how much you can extrapolate those results from somewhere close to the conditions at hand.”

Farmers also need to do a cost comparison and crunch the numbers to make sure the treatment is worth their money.

Beyond that, Schoenau is a big advocate for on-farm evaluation.

“Growers have the capability to do some test strips,” he says. Many farmers have access to tools like yield monitoring, yield mapping and Normalized Vegetation Difference Imaging (NVDI), which can tell them if a particular product or treatment had an effect.

“I encourage all growers to do on-farm assessments of the new technologies and products out there,” he says.

To figure out if a product or treatment is working, farmers need to single out the factor they are interested in looking at and not expect everything to be solved in an instant.

“Vary that factor and keep all the other factors the same or controlled,” says Schoenau. “If you put a whole bunch of things together, you’re not going to be able to tell what caused the effect. You have to keep everything else the same.”

“There’s a lot of different products out there, and certainly a person wants to do some on-farm evaluations. For some things like micronutrients, there are a lot of complex weather and soil factors that will influence whether or not you will see a response to that application. It’s difficult to predict whether you will see a response based on a single diagnostic tool, like a soil test or a tissue test. Because of the complexity or the difficulty to establish whether there will be a response or not, it’s a good idea to do a bit of testing on your own farm, to see if the product is going to do something or has the potential to do something, to help you make a decision before you go whole hog and put it on every acre,” he says.
Above all, Schoenau advises farmers to approach their testing with a degree of caution objectivity to legitimately determine if a person truly received a response from their fields.