Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Fertiliser trial stymied by funding shun

The head of a fledgling fertiliser company is hoping recent Agmardt funding will push his product one step closer to commercial reality.

TURNED DOWN: Eko360 director Bruce Smith with samples of his controlled release urea fertiliser, which failed to get DairyNZ funding support for field trials.

However, that reality remains some distance away, after the company Eko360 failed in efforts to also secure DairyNZ funding for scientific field trials of the controlled release fertiliser.

“Smartfert” is a urea prill in a palm oil based polymer coating. Similar products in use in the United States provide controlled nitrogen release to match crop demand with temperature and moisture levels.

Eko360 director Bruce Smith would not disclose the amount of Agmardt funding the company will receive to allow lab based trials to establish the product’s “release curve” over temperature and moisture gradients.

However, Smith expressed disappointment at DairyNZ’s recent decision not to fund the extensive trials required to confirm what the company’s own trials indicated about Smartfert’s effectiveness.

Smith said DairyNZ had informed him it did not share his views on the likely benefits of controlled release fertilisers, and maintained “a little and often” for nitrogen application was more effective.

“But that is exactly what this product does. It releases a little nitrogen often. It might only need to be applied twice or three times a year, and remains in situ, releasing nitrogen depending upon temperature and moisture, the same factors largely driving pasture production.”

DairyNZ strategy and investment leader Dr Bruce Thorrold said the industry body had thought long and hard before declining funding for Smartfert trials.

“The top line question was ‘is slow release nitrogen fertiliser likely to be valuable to the industry if it works?’ We arrived at a different conclusion to Eko360 on that.”

DairyNZ maintained a “one off” controlled release fertiliser ironically risked farmers losing control over how much nitrogen they applied, compared to its “little and often” recommendation.

“If you use it, and then realise you don’t need it, you have done your chips already. There is no choice over whether or not you do future applications.”

Research around controlled release fertilisers was also being conducted by Ballance, using Primary Growth Partnership funding.

However, Thorrold said he could see the value of the product being used in crop situations.

“There you would want to put all the fertiliser on at once and to match even uptake with an even supply, but pasture is not like that.”

Dr Doug Edmeades has been taken on board as Eko360’s scientific advisor. Edmeades said cracking the controlled release technology was akin to the “holy grail” of fertiliser development.

“My first advice to them was to undertake some robust science. Is it really ‘controlled release’ and how does it perform in the field? There are too many ‘new age’ N products currently on the market which have not been properly assessed and I did not want this company to fall into that murky hole,” Edmeades said.

“The company at my instruction undertook some preliminary work in the laboratory and in the field. From a research perspective these early results are very promising.”

Those trials, conducted by farmer and ex-scientific researcher Dr Richard Cookson, indicated Smartfert was capable of generating 16% more pasture dry matter at half the application rate of conventional urea application.

Cookson’s career included developing nitrogen inhibitors and research work in Australia before returning to farm in Waikato.

He shared Smith’s disappointment at failing to secure DairyNZ funding, but hoped Agmardt’s input may bring a stronger future funding case to DairyNZ.

Thorrold said the esteem in which Cookson and Edmeades were held in their research fields had added significant weight to the seriousness of DairyNZ’s consideration.

Cookson said the product’s ability to limit the amount of nitrogen released to that needed by pasture offered “huge” efficiencies and environmental benefits for the pastoral sector.

“I am not saying this product is necessarily the perfect solution, but from the aspect of professional curiosity I would love to test this new product concept and examine its potential to the New Zealand pastoral industry.”

A NZ trial conducted in 2007 also indicated controlled release urea products had the potential to increase conversion of fertiliser nitrogen to pasture dry matter and also reduced amounts of nitrogen leached, compared to conventional urea nitrogen.

Such products are used extensively overseas in commercial cropping situations and Smith’s own work here with maize had indicated good yield improvements with significantly lower nitrogen applications.

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