David Marks is the managing director of Levity Crop Science, the company behind the nutritional products used on the record-breaking Lamyman winter wheat and OSR crops. He’s also a scientist and visiting research fellow at Lancaster University, with a passion for making agriculture all over the world more sustainable. In a nutshell that means increasing the efficiency of fertiliser use.
He believes growers are using twice as much inputs as are needed, to gain about half the yield that should be possible.“There’s a lot of room for lifting yield, and reducing inputs and the industry should be setting its sights on major gains in the coming decade. To improve on this, we need to get nutrient-use efficiency up, which can be changed by focusing development on wasting less product, making sure that more of what is applied ends up being taken up by the crop.”
“It’s not unusual for as much as two thirds of the nitrogen applied not be taken up by the crop,” he explains. “Historically, slow release coatings were used to slow down losses but we now have technology to stabilise nitrogen fertilisers and prevent their decomposition, meaning more goes in to the crop per kg of N applied and less ends up in the environment through volatilisation and leaching.”
But that’s only part of the story. “We can improve the efficiency of a fertiliser by looking at how a plant uses the nutrient and then helping plants make use of nutrients as energy efficient as possible,” he explains. “The less energy used in taking up, transporting and metabolising nutrients, the more energy is available for plant growth. With nitrogen it takes seven times more energy to utilise N from a nitrate molecule than from an amine molecule.
“So if we use formulation technology to stabilise N fertiliser as amine N, then the plant has more energy available to put into growth. This is particularly valuable when the plant is under stress because the plant isn’t having to work so hard to metabolise the N.”
An additional benefit of amine-N is that it encourages reproductive growth rather than vegetative growth, he says, so plants tend to be shorter and bushier –– OSR will have more branches and pods and wheat will have larger ears, helping ensure that nutrients are used by crops to build yield in the harvested fraction of the plant.
The next question to consider is are we applying the nutrient to the right place? It’s no use applying a nutrient unless the plant can use it, explains David Marks. A case in point is calcium applied to potatoes. Levity are involved in Dutch trials trying to understand the role calcium plays in tuber quality. The results have been good with yield increases of 6t/ha and tuber number uplift of >50,000 tubers/ha.
“Plants take calcium up through their roots and transport it via the vascular system. That means it only moves up in the plant and not down to where the tubers are,” he explains. “The challenge is to get the calcium into the tubers which we can achieve by using activators to get uptake where the plant needs it.”
David Marks firmly believes that the research being generated in the academic community needs to be adapted into products that target solving practical agronomic problems, and the agronomy needs to be understood in order to get the best out of new technology.
“Our research seeks to better understand how plants take up and move nutrients, and how they use them. Understanding this is key to getting better performance out of crops.”