Fertilizer crunch speeds the turn to soil nutrient alternatives

Fertilizer prices, already rising before Russia invaded Ukraine, have been sent into the stratosphere. How soon are they likely to return to earth? According to data from the American Farm Bureau and the United States Department of Agriculture, fertilizer costs are expected to jump 12% this year, after rising 17% in 2021. According to one farm publication, the price of one fertilizer, di-ammonium phosphate, is the highest it’s ever been.

A wave of anxiety is affecting farmers across the world. Peru declared a state of emergency for its agriculture on April 8. Economists are predicting across the board food price increases.

How have American growers responded?

Soy planting intentions ‘shocked industry’

One immediate response seems to have been the decision of row crop growers to plant more soybeans than corn. The price of both commodities has been rising, and corn has excellent profit margins right now—but soybeans require fewer inputs, including fertilizer, than corn. Many prime corn-growing areas are also facing a dry summer.

According to the Prospective Plantings Report released March 31 by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, producers surveyed across the U.S. intend to plant a record high 91 million acres of soybeans in 2022, up 4% from last year. Purdue University’ s Commercial Ag News said the planting intentions report “shocked the industry with surprisingly small planting intentions for corn and surprisingly large planting intentions for soybeans.” NASS’s acreage estimates are based on surveys conducted during the first two weeks of March from a sample of nearly 73,000 farm operators across the nation.

Planted acreage intentions for soybeans are up or unchanged in 24 of the 29 estimating states. The largest increases are expected in Illinois and Missouri, where producers in each state intend to plant 400,000 more acres than in 2021. Planting intentions can change, but if realized, the planted area of soybeans in Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin will be the largest on record.

Corn growers said they intended to plant 89.5 million acres in 2022, down 4% from last year. Corn acreage decreases from last year of 200,000 or more are expected in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. Record high acreage is expected in Nevada and South Dakota. Record low acreage is expected in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Interest in alternative practices increases

Growers are also increasing their explorations of alternatives to chemical fertilizers. A Reuters story reports that a manure supplier in Illinois is experiencing record demand.

David Kleinschmidt, a longtime proponent of regenerative practices, told High Plains Journal that his institute, UnderstandingAg, has “never gotten so many inquiries. I’m having daily phone conversations” with growers exploring the regenerative approach, which uses fewer and sometimes no chemical fertilizers. “This is a time of opportunity for focusing on soil health,” said Kleinschmidt.

UnderstandingAg teaches principles rather than magic bullets, said Kleinschmidt—including that each piece of land is different and requires close study and a tailored approach. “Farmers are looking to diversify crop rotations more, in order to cycle more soil nutrients.” Cereal rye and legumes can be alternated with corn and beans for better soil health, and ruminant animals may play a large role in Kleinschmidt’s vision if they are grazed properly.

“Corn/beans back and forth is more of a pendulum swing than a true rotation,” said Kleinschmidt. Adding a small grain into the rotation with diverse cover crops incorporated into the rotation can improve soil health. With proper management, farmers can drastically reduce the amount of inputs required to produce a crop while not sacrificing yields and improving overall farm profitability.

He is concerned that with the West facing more dryness, many areas including western Kansas could be facing a new Dust Bowl.


Among the alternatives seeing renewed interest is the product of a startup called CoverCress Inc. which has genetically engineered the pennycress weed to turn it into a cover crop that can provide an additional revenue stream for farmers, while requiring fewer inputs and passes in the field.

CoverCress is a new oilseed crop grown over winter between normal full season corn and soybeans. It acts like a cover crop while also producing oil and high protein feed that, the company claims, can fit markets similar to canola. While CoverCress is a brassica like mustard and does not fix nitrogen like legumes, and it can reduce fertilizer and water use like other cover crops.

CoverCress Inc. (formerly known as Arvegenix) has been developing its CoverCress cover crop out of the common native pennycress since 2013. Its team of geneticists has removed some undesirable characteristics, increased its oil content and yield and turned it into a cash crop.

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Native pennycress grain has high levels of erucic, fiber and sinigrin, compounds that limit the use of its oil and meal. But CoverCress geneticists have developed varieties that have a new composition and make CoverCress a brand-new crop for the American Midwest, without the limitations of native pennycress, according to the company.

Dale Sorensen, chief commercial officer at CoverCress, said recent farmer interest in CoverCress has been “beyond my wildest speculations.” “Die-hard soybean and corn farmers are showing interest,” he said.

CoverCress is a “nutrient scavenger” that would work well in rotation with nitrogen-fixing cover crops as part of a total cover crop rotations with corn and soybean production, he said. “We get four crops a year in the greenhouse,” he told High Plains Journal. He said nutrient requirements for CoverCress are “significantly below” those for winter wheat, about 40 to 50 pounds of nitrogen ledss per acre.

This year was a rollout year for the commercialization of CoverCress in the launch area of central Illinois and eastern Missouri, with between 8,000 and 10,000 acres planted for harvest in the fall of 2022 for harvest in spring 2023 with seeds with seeds that were provided as part of the contract for raising grain by CoverCress. Given the level of interest, CoverCress hope to significantly expand its acreage in the next few years.

Vegetable oil markets

Sorensen said the company is now focusing its marketing efforts on the high-quality oil that can be produced by crushing CoverCress, comparable to canola oil. “We’re currently not pursuing the food market, but concentrating on bio-fuels,” he said. The market for vegetable oils has soared recently due to demand for feedstocks for renewable diesel. CoverCress can be crushed for oil or meal. While the meal is lower protein than soy meal, it has been used for chicken production. The oil content is higher by weight than that of soybeans. Sorensen said researchers have been working on improving the meal quality for livestock usage after crush.

Pivot Bio

Ag startup Pivot Bio is another company providing alternatives to traditional fertilizer that has experienced record interest. Pivot Bio calls its approach “precision microbial adaptation.” It has developed a patented, proprietary microbial liquid product that it says could drastically reduce traditional fertilizer use, while providing the same amount of quality soil nitrogen. It’s an in-furrow product that’s applied directly to the seed via a planter.

Pivot Bio’s microbes are mapped using intensive AI technologies and produced via fermentation, according to Pivot Bio’s website. They are fed sugars until they reach a high enough concentration to sell. “Fermentation replaces the Haber-Bosch process, the energy-intensive process for creating synthetic nitrogen, and reduces GHG emissions by 89%,” its website claims.

Pivot Bio’s mission “is to deliver plant-ready nitrogen without negative side effects,” according to Randy Minton, sustainability task force lead at Pivot Bio. “We’re the only company in the world to have shipped a synthetic nitrogen fertilizer replacement at scale and with performance that meets farmers’ high requirements.”

“We have some competitors” in the soil nutrition field, he said, “but no one is doing exactly the same thing as we are doing.”

“Our product won’t cover the entire need” for soil nutrition he added. Instead, it can supply up to 20% of total soil nutrition need, used in combination with either traditional fertilizers or manures. It’s a flexible product that can be used with all kinds of soil management practices, said Minton: traditional, organic and regenerative.

Pivot Bio released its first commercially available product in 2019, for corn, and is on its fourth release in three years. It has more than 125 patents (granted and pending), more than 300 employees, and more than 800 representatives in sales networks. Its products have been used on 1 million crop acres, and its second-generation product “enables corn growers to replace up to 40 pounds per acre of synthetic nitrogen with a better source of nitrogen,” Minton said.

Minton said the carbon emission savings resulting from replacing conventional fertilizer with Pivot Bio would equal planting 16 billion trees.

“We have had a fantastic demand emerge,” said Minton. Pivot Bio exhibited at this year’s Commodity Classic.

David Murray can be reached at [email protected].