Nutrient efficiency is on deck in agriculture
In 2019, Brandon Hunnicutt found a missing piece in the puzzle of nitrogen management. Hunnicutt farms with his father and brother on 2,400 acres of corn, soybeans, and popcorn located south of Grand Island, Nebraska.
They have always had a goal to reduce nitrogen use and have tried the tools available, such as sensors, soil samples, and the University of Nebraska’s Nitrogen Calculator, on their journey to finding what works for their operation.
“I stumbled upon Sound Agriculture on Twitter two years ago and thought how intriguing it was to have a product that can help nature do what she does and alleviate some of the risk of applying too much and having leaching or too little and losing out on yield because of a lack of nitrogen,” Hunnicutt says.
He began a trial with Sound, using its Source product that works to activate soil microbes, fix nitrogen, and make phosphorous available.
“Source is a foliar application, and the idea is that farmers apply it at certain points in the season to gain bushels or cut back on nitrogen,” says Eamon Flood, vice president of sales at Sound. “We are seeing, in some cases, that when Source is used to cut back on nitrogen, the bushels increase, too.”
Flood says Sound’s work and products are about the soil. Source converts nitrogen in the air to a form usable by plants and solubilizes phosphates that are typically locked in the soil. It is shelf-stable, can be added to a tank mix, and can be paired with a biological later.
Its flexibility is a quality Hunnicutt has benefited from on his farm, which has been in his family for more than 100 years.
“By understanding how Source works, we know we can shift the application up-front to maintain yield or lessen our usage by applying later in the season. It allows the plants to perform better naturally.”
Nitrogen efficiency raises the potential to improve soil health and water quality and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Flood says Source is a simple method for farmers to begin thinking about sustainability.
“As we expand this product onto more acres and keep reducing nitrogen use, we hope to see positive change in the environment,” Flood says.
Hunnicutt hopes for the same. In his natural resources district, there is a strong urgency to monitor and mitigate nitrogen usage because of high levels of nitrates in the community’s nearby groundwater sources.
“The challenge with groundwater is that you don’t necessarily see your impact unless you’re directly feeding a water supply,” Hunnicutt says.
While data exists about nitrate spikes in the region and a clear connection of runoff between the Midwest and the Gulf of Mexico, making it personal and framing the solutions required as long-term are key.
“If what I’m doing now affects my grandkids, then it takes a long-term process to adjust,” Hunnicutt says. “Our approach with every product we’ve tried, especially with nitrogen, is to see how we can make change happen and reduce our environmental impact.”
Sound, which has more than 200 commercial trials in progress, is working with Syngenta to decrease nitrogen fertilizer use in China by 30%, or a total of about 7.5 million metric tons annually.
Sound also is conducting trials in Brazil and Argentina for nutrient efficiency.
In March, Mosaic Crop Nutrition and Sound Agriculture announced they had formed a partnership to develop products that advance soil health and give back savings to growers.
Taylor Purucker, crop nutrition lead at The Mosaic Company, says one of the most important tools farmers have is enhanced-efficiency fertilizers, and they warrant more attention.
“The Association of American Plant Food Control Officials designates enhanced-efficiency fertilizer technologies based upon their ability to increase nutrient availability while also reducing nutrient loss to the environment. So, when we think about soil health, sustainability, and being good stewards of our land, enhanced-efficiency fertilizers are really important to help us obtain our goals,” Purucker says.
By 2023, the Mosaic-Sound partnership will result in products available to farmers in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and the United States.
Syngenta Group Ventures
Launched in 2009, Syngenta Group Ventures makes investments in companies with innovative products that shape the future of agriculture and sustainability. There are 25 start-ups in the portfolio, including Sound Agriculture.
Other innovations include:
- Agrividia’s product, Grainzyme, is a corn-based enzyme that supports animal diets.
- Greeneye Technology’s selective-spraying system enables precision pesticide applications.
- PowerPollen’s technology preserves, stores, and applies pollen at the optimal time to minimize the risks for seed producers.
- WeedOut has created a biological herbicide applied during weed flowering to prevent the next generation of resistant weed seeds.
Sustainable Nitrogen Solution
Kula Bio, a start-up founded in 2018, has developed a biofertilizer that fixes nitrogen, keeps farms sustainable, and helps mitigate climate impacts. CEO Bill Brady and his team interviewed 700 farmers to determine their highest priorities and parameters: competitive cost, maintaining existing crop management, no need for additional equipment, and proven results. They developed their company and product, Kula-N, accordingly.
Kula-N is a liquid microbial fertilizer that can replace 50% to 80% of synthetic nitrogen typically applied on farms without sacrificing yields. It’s been tested in different geographies across the country and with 10 crop types including high-value produce and row crops.
“The microbe at the core of Kula-N is crop-agnostic and delivers meaningful amounts of nitrogen to the soil. It can withstand the stresses of manufacturing remarkably well, and in the next year, we are looking forward to expanding the amount of product available to farmers.”