New Koch Fertilizer Could Increase Crop Yields While Minimizing Environmental Impact

Latest innovation helps farmers reduce nitrogen loss and produce more food

August 7, 2017

Planet Earth is facing a growing problem. Over the last 67 years, the global population has tripled to 7.5 billion people. By 2050, the United Nations projects that number to cross more than 9 billion. It’s a statistic that is as fascinating as it is foreboding for farmers challenged with producing more food using roughly the same amount of viable farmland.

Nitrogen Cycle Infographic

The nitrogen cycle.

While nitrogen fertilizers have made feeding our growing world possible for years, external factors like weather make their use an imprecise science, and it hasn’t always been an exercise in efficiency. Nitrogen loss – the various processes by which nitrogen moves away from a plant’s root zone – can be a problem for farmers concerned about both their yield and their environmental impact. In fact, as much as 50 percent of applied nitrogen doesn’t get used by crops in a given year.

But a new, yet-to-be-named product currently being reviewed by the EPA is poised to help farmers increase their output to feed our rapidly expanding population while also helping them minimize their environmental impact. This all-new nitrification inhibitor, developed by Koch Agronomic Services, would be the first newly registered molecule of its kind in more than 40 years.

“Due to many conditions often outside farmers’ control, as much as half of the nitrogen in applied fertilizer becomes unavailable for plant uptake,” says Greg Schwab, Director of Agronomy with Koch Agronomic Services. “With this new product, we’ve created something that not only addresses this problem, but also helps save farmers time and money – two resources that can’t be grown in a field.”

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Infographic: Earth’s population growth depends on increased crop yields per acre. New technologies that increase yields sustainably will be required to achieve 2050’s estimated goal. USDA Historical Corn Yield Data shown.bu/acre = bushels/acre

According to Schwab, nitrogen that is not taken up by the plant can be lost to the environment and become a lost resource to farmers – farmers like Lynn Fahrmeier in rural Missouri.

“When we apply nitrogen in the fall, we always hope we put down enough to cover losses in the spring and have enough for the crop,” says Fahrmeier. “So being able to apply the right product at the right rate at the right time is very important. I don’t want an expensive product leaving the root zone after application, and a nitrification inhibitor like this would help prevent that from happening.”

Incorporating a nitrification inhibitor helps combat nitrogen losses, stabilizing it in plants’ root zones longer so crops have more time to absorb it. And as more nitrogen is absorbed by crops, less is lost to the environment through natural processes like denitrification and leaching. In fact, studies have shown that with a nitrification inhibitor, as much as three times more nitrogen is available to the plant.

Image of a nitrogen fertilizer stabilized field.
“Today’s farmers produce 260% more food with fewer inputs like labor, seeds and fertilizer, when compared to 1950. We have to do better than that.” - Greg Schwab, Director of Agronomy, Koch Agronomic Services

“We know that nitrogen is necessary to grow enough food to sustain our growing population,” says Ryan Potter, product manager with Koch Agronomic Services. “This product allows farmers to produce more of the food we need with less nitrogen. A more efficient use of resources has obvious environmental benefits also.”

Because it stabilizes nitrogen so effectively, one of the biggest benefits to farmers is more efficient use of the fertilizers they buy and apply. Taking that into consideration, it might seem strange for a fertilizer company to develop a product that enables its customers to use less fertilizer. But it’s actually in line with Koch’s larger beliefs and values as a company.

“We believe in creative destruction,” says Chase Koch, president of Koch Agronomic Services. “If it’s good for society, we know that someone’s going to do it. And if it’s good for farmers, they’re going to pursue it. So, as a business, we want that someone to be us – we want to be a part of adding that value if possible.”

Annual statistics on fertilizer usage and nitrogen loss to the environment

Annual statistics on fertilizer usage and nitrogen loss to the environment.

If the current market is any indication, there’s a lot of potential to add value. U.S. farmers apply roughly 13 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer to their fields every year, an estimated 20 percent of which is treated with enhanced-efficiency fertilizer technologies including Koch’s existing product line.

While it’s still a year away from commercial availability, testing during the seven-year development phase has already generated promising results in dozens of studies conducted by land-grant universities across the Midwest. If these results are any indication, come fall 2018, this new nitrification inhibitor could prove to be a huge win for both farmers and the growing population they feed.

“This new compound demonstrates Koch’s commitment to finding solutions to farmers’ problems when it comes to nutrient management,” says Schwab. “Farmers are always looking for the next innovation that’s going to improve their profitability and their sustainability. From a nitrogen management perspective, this is that product.”