Balance from Central Valley Ag on Vimeo.

by Mike Zwingman

by Mike Zwingman

If we’re building a better spaceship here, friends, we’re going to have to talk about a bit more than the body color.  (Though for the record, my vote would be Gunmetal Grey.)

When we talk about nutrients in crop production, we tend not to discuss anything other than the primary macronutrients, N, P, and K.  There are three other categories though—secondary macronutrients, micronutrients, and non-mineral elements—that only rarely get a mention and usually in passing.  If we’re serious about improving our efficiency and increasing our yields though, we’re going to have to have some quite serious conversations about nutrients going forward, and we’re going to have to talk about more than the usual.

We need to talk about sulfur, for example.  For the moment, poor sulfur whiles away a secondary macronutrient while its bigger, cooler cousin nitrogen gets all the glory.  But sulfur’s time has come.

A corn plant’s nitrogen efficiency is contingent upon how much sulfur is present.  If you’re low in sulfur then, you can dump as much N as you please into your fields—your plants still won’t be able to take it in.  Yellow corn is as often an indicator of a sulfur deficiency as it is a nitrogen deficiency.  So sulfur is pretty important, right?  Right.  But we’ve never had to talk about it much as sulfur has historically been present in sufficient amounts in the atmosphere.  Until now.  Now, decades of clean air standards and low emission diesel have lessened the amount of sulfur in the atmosphere (acid rain, while being horrible for everything else, was good for corn…).  And now, the push for greater yields (and thus greater efficiency) means we need more sulfur than ever.

So we need to talk about sulfur, because I’d say it’s leveled up to a primary macronutrient.  We simply cannot obtain the goals we’ve set forth without it, and the amount we apply is bound to go up as we continue to chase nitrogen efficiency.

We need to talk about nutrient pairing as a thing overall.  Nitrogen and sulfur are one example of a nutrient pair—one can’t do its work without the other.  Phosphorus and zinc is another vital pairing—phosphorus is taken into a corn plant by root interception, but is only able to be taken in when paired with zinc.

If we’re not considering such pairing, we might be struggling against a serious constraint unknowingly.  I suspect that more than a few of you have encountered a situation where someone here at CVA made a recommendation that seemed a bit odd or needless to you—it is likely a nutrient pairing that informed the recommendation as the FSA or whomever made it to you didn’t want to create a constraint with one nutrient given your application of another.

Balance will be one of our key words moving forward, both in the chemistry and yoga senses.  Raising crops, like life, is not a zero-sum game.  We have to balance the reality of chemical reactions against the reality of cost and profit.  We have to balance the need to solve today’s problems against the maxim that we not cause tomorrow’s.  And the scale is sensitive, so the best decisions won’t be easy.

But its these tough, best decisions that pave the way to the future.  The work is sometimes tough, friends, but don’t worry: we’ll do the chemistry for you…