The world of crop fertility is undergoing significant change. Not only is the technology of delivering crop nutrients changing, but the science behind the process of feeding a high-yield crop is getting more precise, as well. Alan Blaylock, manager of agronomy, Agrium, understands this all too well.

With his 25-year history in his role at the company and in Extension, Blaylock manages a team of agronomists working to enhance domestic and international nutrient management practices. Agrium’s key product — controlled-release nitrogen with the product ESN — has been his focus.

“I know it’s something of a buzzword, but we’re seeing a systems approach to fertility,” Blaylock says. “Really what I think we’re seeing is a return to more of an interest in producing greater yields to meet growing global food, feed, fiber and fuel demands.”

With rising concerns over the value of inputs versus the value of the crop, Blaylock sees high-yield producers taking a holistic view to boost yield. “There’s also more interest in the interaction among nutrients. For example, if you change N management, how does that impact other nutrients? And micronutrients enter into that discussion.”

Crop tech

As Blaylock looks at industry trends, he sees growing interest in a variety of technologies, including enhanced-efficiency fertilizers with improved returns and crop sensors to determine, in season, what the crop needs.

The key is better understanding how much of a nutrient is available from different soil types. That’s what is driving more sensor use and a rising interest in other tools that offer in-season diagnostic judgments such as tissue testing.

Blaylock has worked with farmer focus groups exploring the trends and interests growers have in crop nutrition and yield, and he’s found some challenges. “Our experience — through formal focus groups, grower surveys and informal interactions — is that farmers want less complication and more simplicity. Those [in-season] technologies require a higher level of management and application according to the diagnosis. There’s a little bit of a disconnect,” he says.

That disconnect, between the need for simplicity and the need for more precise fertility application, will play out over the next few seasons, he says. “I’ll be interested to see how [in-season diagnostic technology] is adopted in practice, and if it will be adopted on a wide basis or just for certain high-end innovators.”

Looking ahead

Blaylock, who spent time in Extension before joining Agrium, knows farmers are looking for ways to maximize every dollar spent on the farm. 

That’s what drives his talk of a holistic approach, which you’ll likely hear more about as crop fertility companies and others better understand the interaction between crop genetics and inputs. For Blaylock, plant nutrition consists of two components — the chemistry or actual fertilizer and its form, and the delivery of the nutrient to the crop. Those two interact in a number of ways depending on the management system in use.

“In the next 10 years, as we work toward the end of my career, I think we’re going to see some tremendous technology developments. I don’t know what they are, but I know they’ll be sophisticated,” he concludes.

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