Biome Makers Blog

The Right Fertilizer For The Job


Fertilizer applications can be expensive, time-consuming, messy, and unpredictable. Also, the price of farming continues to rise at an all-time high. Fertilizers, ag inputs, seed, labor, machinery, and other management costs are a serious concern for farming worldwide. 

It is important to optimize the expense of producing food. Understanding which fertilizer is the right one for the job could be a one-step solution to save time and money.

There's no one-size-fits-all fertilizer solution. It can help to understand your soil’s specific needs before you start applying agricultural inputs. The 4Rs has been a longstanding practice to guide farmers in fertilizer application: right source, right rate, right time, and right place. The main goal was to manage nutrients that are readily available. 

But what if your soil is already packed with nutrients and your plant cannot gain access to them? One way to diagnose this problem is to identify and address blockages in the nutrient cycling pathways. 

Nutrient cycling pathways can become blocked from overapplication and improper use of fertilizer ag inputs and from management practices that cause disruptions in the soil. It is crucial to understand the biological functions of the soil to ensure nutrient cycling pathways are not blocked. 

How Soil Biology Influences the Effectiveness of Ag Inputs

Nutrient cycling is a biological function that is carried out by soil biology. Soil biology refers to the soil as a living, breathing, and interacting ecosystem. It is the study of the biota present and the interactions between the different types of microorganisms i.e., bacteria, archaea, fungi, algae, protozoa, and viruses.

Soil biology facilitates nutrient cycling, nutrient uptake, and soil health to support plant growth. It also affects phytohormone production, plant stress adaptation, and pathogen pressure. How do fertilizers come into play?

Biologicals, biostimulants, and other fertilizers are a major piece of a farmer's toolbox, enabling crops to grow to their full potential. But they can also be a hindrance if not used correctly. 

One way that fertilizers can affect soil biology is by recruiting new microbes to transport nutrients to the crops. However, some fertilizers may harm the soil biology you are trying to promote. 

For example, overusing synthetic fertilizers could cause potential problems and create unnecessary costs for farmers. Synthetics can cause changes in pH or raise salinity which may negatively impact soil biology. “In addition to lowering the pH, some fertilizers can actually raise the pH and hurt soil biology that way.” says agronomist Gus Plamann at Biome Makers. “Increased salinity is one of the main ways conventional fertilizers can hurt soil biology.” It can be beneficial for farmers to know which microbes are helping, not hurting, the soil before they begin the growing season. 

Know Before You Grow

There are three dimensions of soil health: physical, chemical, and biological. Physical soil health includes aggregation, soil structure, water and gas movement, and porosity. Chemical soil health refers to pH, cation exchange capacity, and nutrient availability. Biological soil health, which is often overlooked, consists of macrofauna, mesofauna, microfauna, and biological activity.

While chemical and physical soil tests can provide clear information on baseline nutrient and organic matter levels, there is still a missing puzzle piece to what the farming ecosystem needs to survive and thrive. That is where biological soil tests come into play. 

Understanding what soil biology needs before applying any fertilizers could be the key to a successful growing season. Biological soil tests can help detect disease risks before they happen by analyzing what microbes are present and their functions.

Check out this webinar, Know Before You Grow, where Matt Rasmussen, 5th generation corn and soybean farmer, discusses his experience with a biological soil test to diagnose his soil problems and choose the right fertilizer for the job.

Data-Driven Tools for Better Recommendations

Biological soil tests include a wealth of information considering soil quality, soil health, and nutrition. But sometimes, these tests can contain an overload of data that can be difficult to apply to your day-to-day decisions on the farm. One way to get a full scope of your farmland's underground bioactivity is to utilize tests that provide data-driven tools. 

Data-driven tools can help farmers understand how soil biology influences fertilizer effectiveness, make smarter decisions about fertilizer application, and help farmers save time, money, and on-farm energy. BeCrop® Test, powered by BeCrop® Technology,  is a soil microbiome analysis tool that delivers data-driven reports on biological soil functions for all crops. "Having all soil microbiome data harmonized under the same platform is definitely a massive advantage of Biome Makers' value proposition," states Concha y Toro. "Soon, we’re looking to assess the efficacy of some arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi inoculants on some blocks, and we’ll deploy BeCrop Trial to monitor the presence of this microbe and assess the impact of this product over time and against a control treatment."

Farmers can also utilize BeCrop® Trials to measure fertilizer performance by understanding how crop protection affects soil biology. For example, BeCrop® Trials allowed Rogitex Inc. to test their agricultural input performance and verify functional claims in bell pepper crops. After their Humic Land treatment, the nitrogen metabolic pathway increased from low to high, resulting in a 27% higher yield in 2,000 bell pepper boxes per acre.

Input Performance Measurement

BeCrop® Trials, also powered by BeCrop® technology, takes soil analysis to the next level. BeCrop® Trials measures fertilizer performance by monitoring ag input product performance evolution with a series of tests comparing control and treatment blocks over multiple time points and under various conditions.

Growers, advisors, and ag input manufacturers can measure and verify the impact of ag input products on biodiversity, pathogens, and nutrient pathways with science-based methods, powered by the largest global database of 10M microorganisms.

Fertilizer is a tool, not a magic bullet. Understanding biological soil health can help you discover your farm’s untapped potential and provide key information on which fertilizers are the right ones for your soil’s needs.