You’ve likely already heard of Source by Sound Agriculture, the promising new crop product that enhances nitrogen and phosphorus uptake for better yields. But it will work on your farm? A new tool the company recently rolled out might provide some answers.
Sound Agriculture earlier this month released its Performance Optimizer, which allows a grower to enter in three soil health parameters to see if Source would be a good match:
- soil pH
- organic matter
- cation exchange capacity (CEC)
Source is a foliar-applied spray that acts like a biological. Its developers say it was designed to work seamlessly into existing spray programs, going in with postemergent herbicides in corn or with late-season fungicide applications in soybeans.
The product works on the plant’s roots where it activates beneficial microbes that unlock phosphates for plant uptake and transforms atmospheric nitrogen into a plant-available form. The company claims that it boosts nitrogen and phosphorus, leading to better plant health and enhanced yields.
And it does so with just a tiny amount of product, just seven-tenths of an ounce per acre, according to Jeff Divan, senior manager of sales agronomy for Sound Ag.
The company announced Source in late 2019 and rolled it out on a limited basis in corn in 2020. Divan says farms that used it averaged an 8.6-bushel increase and a 76% return on investment in 2020, without any additional fertilizer. This year the company’s rolling out Source for soybeans on 30,000 acres and is making its corn product widely available. The cost is $9 an acre for Source soybeans and $14 an acre for Source corn.
“What it does is it unlocks phosphate-stabilizing bacteria that unlocks phosphates, and the other is nitrogen-fixing bacteria that turns atmospheric N into a form that's more usable in the plant,” Divan says.
Source is Sound Ag’s first commercial product. The company is funded by several venture capital firms, including Syngenta Ventures, the corporate venture capital arm of Syngenta, and it’s also gotten funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Divan, who also farms several thousand acres in northern Iowa, says the company specializes in nutrient-use efficiency products focused on soil microbes.
“When soil microbes and bacteria are in the presence of nutrients, they become lazy and dormant,” he says. “Over the past five years, we’ve been looking into chemical signs from plants to call for those nutrients and form symbiotic relationships with bacteria.”
But an important key is that it doesn’t require an additional pass and can be applied using existing equipment. So a grower can apply it with a postemergent application of corn herbicide — anytime from V4 to VT — or with a late-season fungicide application in soybeans.
“We’re pretty excited about this because there’s not a lot of nutrient-use efficiency options in soybeans; that’s very unique,” he says.
Promising results for no-till
Divan says the product performs especially well in fields with conservation tillage, especially no-till, a potentially good sign for Northeast and Mid-Atlantic producers.
“The less tillage we saw increased performance. When you leave soils intact, it leaves crops intact. Anytime there’s roots there dying and decaying, it becomes a carbon source, which carbon is food for microbes, so we see increased populations of those microbes in bacteria living in the soil,” he says. “Since we’re in the business of waking up what’s there and putting it to work, the more we start with, the more we can gain from it.”
The company has also started testing the product on fields with manure applications.
“With large manure applications, you can have soils that test very high for phosphorus, but it’s in an organic form and needs to be broken down before it can be taken up by the plant. So this product can activate phosphate solubilizers,” he says. “And we’ve seen the ability to pull that fertilizer out of the soil and into the plants, rather than it sit there and go unused.”
The company did a study on a California dairy last year, where the product was applied to corn silage, and they looked at silage quality. Divan says in fields where Source was applied, starch content increased 2%, while tonnage increased by 3%.
Trey Hill, who farms 10,000 acres of field crops on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, was one of the few farmers who got to try the product last year.
He evaluated it in two test plots — one that was no-till and planted green with cover crops, and another field that was no-till but had a long history of chicken litter application. He applied the product at V6.
On his field that was planted with cover crops, he saw an 8-bushel yield increase. But on the field with prior chicken litter, he didn’t see a yield bump. He thinks the field’s high phosphorus levels may have lessened the effects of the treatment.
“There was never a lack of phosphorus. If you've got plenty of phosphorus, you need something to enhance it,” he says.
Hill has been a slow adapter of biologicals as he’s more of a believer in N, P and K. Most biologicals he’s worked with fall in the $9- to $15-an-acre range, so this product is in the ballpark. But higher crop prices make him more comfortable to try out new things.
“A $10 investment when corn is $5 is a lot different than when corn is $3. It certainly makes life easier to try stuff. It gives you a little flexibility to experiment on things with low risk," he says.