When farmer profit margins tighten up, as they have in recent months, the first thought is often to cut back on fertilizer applications. The analogy for a retailer would be to shorten business hours because sales have fallen off.

Just as the sharp retailer looks for more ways to attract and retain business, the sharp crop producer looks for ways to maximize yield from applied nutrients. Soil amendments are getting increased attention from researchers, retailers and growers as everyone searches for new ways to better the bottom line.

Applications of gypsum, derived from power plant sulfur scrubbing and containing calcium and sulfur components, is something Professor Warren Dick, Ohio State University, thinks could benefit a lot of fields and their farmers.

His research and other he cites suggest that sulfur applications are increasingly vital to maximize the value of nitrogen applications in corn, especially at lower N rates. He also appreciates the impact of the calcium on rooting crops, specifically, and in high acid soils in general, where the calcium moves deeper into the soil profile. High sulfur-demanding crops like alfalfa are especially likely to benefit.

"With forages, we see very consistent results with gypsum," said Dick. "Sometimes they are dramatic with up to 40 percent higher yields, depending on conditions in the field, need for sulfur and improvements in air and water infiltration from gypsum applications."

Dick suggests that gypsum is only one product to consider. He advises retailers and their customers to look at nontraditional sources for plant nutrients such as sulfur and consider benefits from products beyond N, P and K.
"Farming and crop management require a very broad viewpoint because so many variables are involved," he said. "More and more industries are looking for beneficial uses for their byproducts. There are a lot of potential nutrient sources that have not been looked at."

West of the Mississippi, Soil Solutions, Holstein, Iowa, has been promoting one such nontraditional source. For the past seven years, the company has been marketing a gypsum byproduct of lactic acid production. Pro Cal 40 is a food grade product produced at a Blair, Neb., plant. Due to transport costs, marketing has been limited to an area roughly within 300 miles of Blair. Although Pro Cal 40 supplies about 300 pounds of sulfur per ton applied, it is the calcium component that is attracting customers.

"I am sure our customers are getting a yield response from the sulfur, but they are buying gypsum first as a soil amendment," said Bob Hecht, a founding partner of Soil Solutions. "We positioned our product first in alkaline soils, but since then have added high magnesium soils. We target soils that are tighter with poor infiltration rates and poor drainage. We've also found a lot of soils in no-till get sealed off at the surface, and with a ton of our product per acre, the soil structure stays looser with less run off."

Although the company does make some direct sales, Hecht said they prefer to market through retailers. However, some aren't interested, he said. "Others don't have lime spreading equipment, so they ask us to handle application."

Hecht reports about 90 percent repeat business, thanks to yield increases of three to 15 bushels per acre in soybeans and 10 to 50 bushels and as much as 100 bushels per acre in corn. Customers see results from a single $30 per ton (ballpark cost) application for three to four years. As a result, he doesn't expect tight margins to affect demand anymore than high prices did. "Last season, we started in October and made applications until June," said Hecht. "We were spreading some fields this past spring with the planter right behind us."

Meanwhile back in Ohio, Blanchard Valley Farmers Co-op (BVFC), Findlay, Ohio, is promoting a combination soil amendment/nutrient source called N-Viro. Based on its nutrient content, the biosolid/lime product was very attractively priced when fertilizer prices were at their peak and remains competitive at today's lower prices.

The co-op is the exclusive dealer for the product from the Toledo, Ohio, facility of N-Viro International. N-Viro the company has patented a process to use biosolids and other industrial byproducts to make a Class A fertilizer product without regulatory concern for heavy metals. Biosolids are processed with lime kiln dust, fly ash and other industrial byproducts, as well as commercial lime.

Although the nutrient value can vary slightly, the end product is 35 percent to 37 percent calcium carbonate, 6 pounds per tone of N, 10 pounds per ton P2O5 equivalent and about 40 to 50 pounds per ton K2O.

"It also has the equivalent of about 37 pounds of sulfur per ton as well as some zinc, boron, manganese and finally, about 14 percent organic matter," explained Mike Tobe, Blanchard Valley agronomy division manager. "The organic matter alone is appreciated by growers. It differentiates us in the marketplace."

The product is part of an overall precision management program at Blanchard Valley. Broadcast applications begin after winter wheat harvest, on grid sampled fields, going into corn the following year and following harvest of other crops through the fall and continuing much of the winter. Grid sampling determines the base amount to be applied, with supplemental nutrient variable rates applied to match crop nutrient needs. Because it is highest in lime value, applications are calculated on acid neutralizing needs of the field. Tobe does admit some frustrations with the product.

"The product does have its challenges both with consistency and moisture content," he said. "We are learning as we go."

Part of the learning curve included finding appropriate equipment. Initial test runs and field use of the John Deere DN345 high capacity, pull-type spreader suggested it was a perfect fit. Tobe says they began running into problems with spreading the N-Viro product as they moved into the late fall. Higher humidity levels, moisture and water content made flow-through a challenge.

"We are planning to try a polyliner on the inside of the tank," he said. "But we may find there are months we have to use a different type of applicator. We are working with the manufacturer to get a consistently drier product."

Tobe said Blanchard Valley hasn't given up on either the product or the equipment. Rather, they are hoping to eventually get the N-Viro as a pelletized product. In the meantime, they and their customers are seeing a positive impact on yields and soils. As for the John Deere equipment, one reason they purchased it was its multipurpose fit for spreading dry fertilizer and especially as a lime applicator.

"We move up to 25,000 tons of lime each year, as our soils require pH adjustment every three to five years," said Tobe. "With the input costs and commodity prices facing our farmers, proper pH is definitely critical to efficient use of added nutrients. As margins tighten, it becomes even more important to get the maximum efficiency."