Analyzing Fertilizer Savers

Assessment Tool Will Ideally Analyze Effectiveness of Various Fertilizer Optimizers

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Farmers have a new tool to help compare the effectiveness of various nitrogen modeling programs and stabilizers. (Photo courtesy NutrientStar)

NEW ORLEANS (DTN) -- Environmental Defense Fund wants farmers to know the performance of the various fertilizer- and nutrient-management products on the market.

EDF rolled out a website and assessment tool called NutrientStar at Commodity Classic. NutrientStar will review computer programs that set fertilizer recommendations, and nitrogen inhibitor or stabilizer products that are being pitched to farmers as cost savers.

Over the past several years, EDF staff and advisers have begun attending Commodity Classic, where they hold farmer-advisory panels to discuss how the environmental group can work with farmers to better manage fertilizer. The NutrientStar program has been in the works for roughly two years as EDF worked with its farmer-advisory panel and some ag researchers to create metrics for analyzing various fertilizer tools.

Suzy Friedman, director of agricultural sustainability at EDF, said more and more companies had been calling EDF to tout their products and farmers were getting even more calls about them. It got to the point that it became hard to keep up.

"We had no way of knowing which of these technologies worked and which didn't," Friedman said. She added, "We reached out to a number of folks and asked if there was anything out there evaluating a number of these tools or technologies that claim to help with nutrient use and efficiency and there was nothing out there."

The goal of NutrientStar is to give farmers more options to make their own decisions on managing nutrient efficiency. The assessment tool will involve an independent group of soil and agronomy scientists from across the country to assess the value of various nutrient-efficiency tools in different soils and climates. The NutrientStar review will highlight yield impacts and include details on cost-benefit, ease of use and the various inputs needed, EDF stated.

Ohio farmer Fred Yoder, an EDF adviser, said it's difficult for farmers to gauge the effectiveness of the various products being pitched to them because there hasn't been a third-party analysis in some cases to compare them.

"All of the things we use in this industry are based on trust and one of the reasons I'm so excited about NutrientStar is there has been such a need for a product like this because there are so many things hitting the market," Yoder said. He added, "If you listen to the salesman, you should have an extra 80 to 100 bushels, and we have got to have a way to prove these things ... I look at this like 'Show me the Carfax.' What is really working and who can you trust?"

Indiana farmer Brent Bible, another EDF adviser who studied economics in college, reiterated some of Yoder's comments. "As an ag economist, I like black and white things. I like known ideas and known behaviors and that's what this brings is a scientific basis for recommendations that are made and it's third-party verification. That third-party verification is so important in this process."

Bible added that tight economic times for farmers also demand that they know what they are investing their money in. "Three to five years ago it was very easy to try the next neat product," Bible said. "We had great margins, we were making money. It was over the top. It was easy to spend a few thousand dollars extra to buy the next snake oil -- I'll say -- that came along," Bible said. "It was OK to throw some play money at these neat ideas. Those days are over. We have moved into that next cycle ... We're now in that cycle of being a lot more conscientious of our input costs and conscientious of what that return is for that dollar spent."

John McGuire, an EDF adviser, has been working on the testing protocols and field research for NutrientStar to ensure consistency in the process.

"The idea is bring that transparency so you know what's best to invest in, what can you expect from that product ... and basically be able to be more confident in the products that are out there," McGuire said.

Beyond farmers, such a tool could be incorporated into various sustainability programs championed by food companies to reduce the environmental footprint of the food industry. Companies are looking for ways to reduce fertilizer applications because nitrous oxide from nitrogen is a potent greenhouse gas. The rollout for NutrientStar came with supporting statements from Campbell Soup Co., Kellogg Co., Smithfield Foods, Unilever and the National Corn Growers Association.

NutrientStar has already begun or will soon start to assess a few popular tools: Adapt-N, a software that links crop models and soils to estimate nitrogen rates on fields. Others are nitrogen stabilizers, including N-Serve, Agrotain, Agrotain Plus and Super U. Other reviews will be released this spring on Nutrisphere N and Instinct II.

Reviews and more information about NutrientStar can be found at www.nutrientstar.org.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

(CZ/BAS)

Chris Clayton