Growing interest in spoon-feeding crop nutrients is more than spoon-feeding liquid fertilizer sales. While high prices in 2009 took a bite out of all fertilizer sales, expanding liquid fertilizer demand in recent years appears to be back on track. Tapping into that growth offers a nice complement to anhydrous and dry product sales, suggests Tony Jacobs, agronomist, Crystal Valley Co-op, Lake Crystal, Minn.

"Liquid is growing. A lot of it is due to split shot applications, and liquid makes perfect sense as a way to deliver nutrients," said Jacobs. "Our base load is still fall-applied anhydrous, and we are building a new 48,000-ton dry fertilizer storage unit, but liquid fits with all that. The liquid applications we are doing out of our locations are 28 percent low rate, preplant incorporated — especially on manured acres and corn on corn and post-emerge with drop nozzle in a Greenseeker application."

A large share of Crystal Valley's liquid business is grower applied, in-furrow at planting, including sales of its own blend called Crystal Grow, an 8-29-3. Jacobs noted that starter has come and gone and come again during his career. "When I started in the business, every planter had a starter unit. Then as planters got bigger, starter units went away. Now that planters are even bigger, starter is back," he said. "Everyone is looking for efficiency — anything that will give that extra oomph. Liquid in-furrow provides it.

"Growers with areas that test low for phosphorus are looking for efficiency," he added. "With in-furrow, they can reduce their broadcast rate by 30 percent to 50 percent. In-furrow with a 10-34-0 base is the most economic polyphosphate source out there."

Technology Enhances Interest

Precision technology also plays a role in the growth of interest in liquid fertilizer sales for Crystal Valley. Expanded grid soil sampling has helped grow variable rate technology (VRT) applications by 10 percent to 15 percent per year. The co-op offers VRT with liquid and dry machines as well as some VRT nitrogen, noted Jacobs.

As Bernie Paulson, McPherson Ag, noted in AgProfessional earlier this year ("Crop Sensors Build Business," March 2010), it is a confluence of equipment development and responsive hybrids that is creating an ideal environment for liquid fertilizer use. On-the-go crop sensing is making it possible for growers to evaluate opportunities to give a high-yield-potential crop that extra boost. With liquids, a grower can go into the field pre-tassel for a final spoon-feeding if he thinks it will pay. Meanwhile, earlier applications fine tune nitrogen (N) availability to match the season.

"What really stood out last year was the importance of the first three steps: the preplant, the starter and sideband or pre-emergence," said Paulson. "Having different forms of nitrogen around the plant really proved important in 2009. In plots where we did all of our nitrogen on top, we could barely get enough into the leaf, no matter how much had been put on."

Paulson reported that some of his growers are making as many as five applications over the course of the season. Again, equipment is the deal breaker, with growers using 40 to 60-ft. tool bars with coulters or cultivator sweeps to apply 28 or 32 percent liquid N, or even anhydrous ammonia. Steering guidance packages add speed to the equation. He notes that some of his growers are using high-clearance applicators in corn starting at V8 stage for a final hit of 28 percent. "They will use drop nozzles and orifices operating at 60 psi," he explained. "With that kind of pressure and a directed stream, they can 'drill' that 28 percent an inch or so into the soil surface."

The Evolution of Liquid Fertilizers

Growing recognition of the role of micronutrients and sulfur is also impacting liquids. Paulson noted that researchers are seeing a yield response to sulfur in some soils. In those cases, his growers are mixing 5 percent ammonium sulfate with their liquid N to stabilize the N and reduce pH in the band. He will even recommend it in sidebands at planting in some soils.

Similarly, Jacobs noted that southeastern Minnesota has shown a response to zinc. Although their dry fertilizer units have a bin they can use for adding zinc on the go, liquid, he noted, is a nice way to place it in-furrow and next to the seed.

Raun Lohry, president, Nutra-Flo, has watched the evolution and fluctuations of liquid fertilizer first hand. "We've seen a huge difference just in the past 10 years," he said. "There is a significant amount of interest in liquid starters in this high-yield environment. Our yields in the past several years have been phenomenal and are a tribute to genetics, breeding and overall nutrient management. I think growers believe that liquid starters are a part of that total package. Banding is simply the most efficient way to get nutrients to the root system."

Lohry is also excited about the role sensing technology will play in future liquid sales. "You are dealing with fairly small windows of application and influence in the post-emergence season," he noted. "To sense a difference for post emergence is very difficult. We have just recently got a handle on nitrogen with on-the-go sensing technology, and it will increase our environmental and economic stewardship of the nutrient. If retailers can provide value to growers by using that technology and liquid fertilizers, it will gain them an edge."

Delivering Nutrients at the Right Time

Although new technologies may play a future role in the growth of liquid fertilizer, John Kugler, Kugler Co., McCook, Neb., a regional manufacturer and supplier of liquid fertilizers, sees significant growth opportunity with traditional application technologies, especially aerial. Last year's high prices affected Kugler's sales both as a retailer and a manufacturer, especially in commodity-type products. This year, he said, they are on the mend, in part due to growing in-furrow and in-season application. Yield responses to micronutrients seen with genetically modified crops is adding interest to liquid packages. However, even as grower interest increases, Kugler warned against overselling the efficiency of liquid products over dry, as has been done in the past.

What they are, he said, is the most efficient way to deliver the right product at the right time in the right amount to feed the plant. "If you can get the readily useable nutrients to the right spot when the plant can use it, whether in furrow, in the root zone or on the leaf, that's efficiency compared to dry product broadcast," said Kugler. "Our product sales are getting a boost from aerial application and row-crop machines alike. Whenever a rig goes over a field, you can spoon-feed nutrients. It's a great management tool when the crop is looking good and can use more nitrogen."

Spoon-feeding nitrogen to match utilization potential addresses both environmental and economic concerns about over application. Add slow release to the equation, and those concerns are reduced even more. Kugler is very excited about KQXRN, the company's slow release 28 percent N product and the results seen with it in-furrow and foliar applied. He feels it and other liquid fertilizer products, whether with micronutrients or not, slow release or not, fit the evolving market. The only question is who supplies the demand.

"Liquids aren't new products, but they are getting more attention," said Kugler. "Some retailers have been slow to grasp the concept of in-furrow and foliar presenting a good opportunity for sales. They have to change their mindset from a commodity orientation to products that can bump yields 18 to 20 bushels per acre. Not only do you have a healthy plant, but you have a healthy customer."