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Beware snake oil fertilizers

Be careful of on-traditional fertilizersResults may not pan outEvaluate the economics

Ron Smith 1

December 1, 2010

2 Min Read

Something about high fertilizer prices brings the snake oil salesmen crawling out from the woodwork looking for a quick dollar from folks trying to reduce the cost of raising crops.

“My mother always told me that if it looked too good to be true, it was,” said Vanessa Corriher, Texas AgriLife Extension forage specialist, during the recent annual Agricultural Technology Conference on the Texas A&M-Commerce campus.

She and soil fertility specialist Mark McFarland took on what they charitably referred to as “alternative fertilizers,” and pointed to research data that show no economic benefit from non-traditional nutrient formulations. Those do not include animal manures and legumes, which can augment a conventional fertility program, they said.

“A lot of these products are promoted heavily,” McFarland said. “Some, such as Medina, have been around a long time and have been studied.”

He said Medina is supposed to “rev up soil microbes.” But results from multiple state testing over seven years showed improvement in crop production was “zero. It’s still here and with new formulations,” he said.

No economic advantage

Other products, including humic acids that are supposed to change soil chemistry and improve nutrient uptake are equally unimpressive. “Humic acid occurs naturally in the soil,” he said. A three-year study on four crops showed “no economic response.”

He singled out Avail, promoted as a “progerminator” that would produce equal yields with about 25 percent the standard Phosphorus fertilizer rate. “The product did fine,” McFarland said, in North Carolina tests. “But it costs the same amount per acre (as the standard fertilizer rate).” He said reliance on the material would result in “mining the soil) of nutrients. Eventually, producers have to add more phosphorus.”

“These products have appealing sticker price tags,” Corriher said, “but the economics may not add up.”

She recommended trying no more than a small amount on limited acreage to evaluate a product. “Traditional fertilizers produce the best yields,” she said. “We see a significant difference between traditional fertilizers and snake oils.”

Research has shown average yields with the “alternative products” at 900 pounds of forage per acre compared to 3200 pounds per acre with traditional fertilizers. “We see little difference between these products and untreated check plots,” she said.

McFarland recommends producers ask for more information before using these “miracle” products. “Insist on scientific research from a credible source,” he said. He said an Internet search might not provide reliable information. “The first few sites will be marketing sites,” he said.

 “Request local data and conduct your own scientific tests over a uniform area, multiple plots with and without the product. Replication is a key.”

He said plots should all be managed and harvested similarly.

About the Author(s)

Ron Smith 1

Senior Content Director, Farm Press/Farm Progress

Ron Smith has spent more than 40 years covering Sunbelt agriculture. Ron began his career in agricultural journalism as an Experiment Station and Extension editor at Clemson University, where he earned a Masters Degree in English in 1975. He served as associate editor for Southeast Farm Press from 1978 through 1989. In 1990, Smith helped launch Southern Turf Management Magazine and served as editor. He also helped launch two other regional Turf and Landscape publications and launched and edited Florida Grove and Vegetable Management for the Farm Press Group. Within two years of launch, the turf magazines were well-respected, award-winning publications. Ron has received numerous awards for writing and photography in both agriculture and landscape journalism. He is past president of The Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association and was chosen as the first media representative to the University of Georgia College of Agriculture Advisory Board. He was named Communicator of the Year for the Metropolitan Atlanta Agricultural Communicators Association. More recently, he was awarded the Norman Borlaug Lifetime Achievement Award by the Texas Plant Protection Association. Smith also worked in public relations, specializing in media relations for agricultural companies. Ron lives with his wife Pat in Johnson City, Tenn. They have two grown children, Stacey and Nick, and three grandsons, Aaron, Hunter and Walker.

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