A new way to deliver fertilizer could pay big dividends
Most fertilizers today are measured by the pound. Ismail Cakmak challenges farmers to consider measuring them by the milligram (mg).
Cakmak, a biological scientist at Sabanci University in Istanbul, Turkey, and his colleagues have been investigating ways to fortify cereal crops with micronutrients such as zinc, iron, selenium and boron. A lot of this work has been done via seed and foliar treatments. Often, just a few milligrams of a nutrient are applied to each seed, but that amount can still make a big difference.
"Everyone talks about foliar and soil fertililization, but nobody pays attention to seed fertilization," Cakmak told seed treatment industry experts at the Exceed the Seed symposium sponsored by AgriThority, an agriculture product and market development company. "Little attention is being paid to the nutrient reserves in the seeds themselves. Seed reserves of nutrients represent a key factor in affecting seed germination, seedling vigor, uniformity and final yields."
In other words, farmers who want a picket-fence stand won’t get it if the seed itself is not carrying adequate amounts of nutrients, he says.
Jump-start nutrients. For example, corn has shown a substantial yield increase when the seed was primed with a 1% zinc solution. Zinc is a critical micronutrient during germination and cotyledon development. Other tests with phosphorus on millet have produced similar positive results.
Cakmak says one big conclusion he has made is the importance of analyzing seed nutrients prior to planting to know if any supplemental nutrition is needed. at planting. This is as important as soil or leaf analysis for nutrients, he says.
This work is twofold. First, there are huge humanitarian implications. For example, zinc deficiency is responsible for approximately 500,000 child deaths worldwide each year. Cakmak hopes that advancements in designing healthier grain would be a lifesaver.
There is a distinct farmer benefit, as well. Other speakers at the symposium said that the seed-applied micronutrients, biologicals and other additives are still in their relative infancy, but it will be critical to study them and figure out which combinations of seed treatments can reap the most benefits.
"We have barely touched the potential benefits from seed treatment technology," notes Bill Hairston, director of product development with Bayer CropScience. "We’ll continue to see a lot of advancements in the future."
Farmers need to start looking at plant nutrition as a season-long endeavor, adds Catherine White, plant nutrition specialist with WinField.
"Yield starts at germination," she says. "We realize nothing occurs in a vacuum. We have to look at the plant and the soil as a system that works together."
Some seed industry members attending the Exceed the Seed symposium see an immediate opportunity to put Cakmak’s research to work. Additionally, they say they hope further research might ignite an effort to add nutrient value information to seed bag labels.
Seed treatments are the fastest growing agricultural segment and could continue to expand by another 60% globally by 2018, according to David Jackson, manager of seed technology systems at AgriThority.
Hear Dr. Cakmak’s seed nutrient insights with Al Pell and read additional coverage at www.FarmJournal.com/Exceed_the_Seed
You can e-mail Ben Potter at firstname.lastname@example.org.