Fertilizer Practices: What Kind of Fertilizers are There?

Fertilizer Practices: What Kind of Fertilizers are There?

What are fertilisers?

Fertilizers are the plants’ food and are usually derived from the soil they grow in. Hence, the overarching goal of fertilizers is to restore or add the required nutrients needed for plants to continue their development. As the plants grow and nutrients are absorbed from the soil, their levels in the ground need to be monitored and restored to avoid depletion. Nutrients can be made out of organic or artificial materials and contain one or several different kinds, depending on their use case. Fertilizers and the corresponding nutrients they provide the plant with are fundamental for maintaining and enabling its physiological properties. 

Besides their nutrient component, fertilizers can come in liquid, granular or even gaseous form. Each has its perks and specific use cases. Manure is an example of liquid fertilizer. After it has been collected from livestock, it is spread into the field via a specialised liquid fertilizer distribution machine or an irrigation system using sprinklers. In the case of manure, it can also be applied when in a more solid format. Using a solid-manure spreader, it is distributed on the field by shredding it. Compared to other fertilizers and application methods, solid manure is limiting as it rarely can be done during the growing season. 

Granular or pellet fertilizers vary in size and can be applied more freely at any time during the growing season. This is especially helpful when a farmer chooses to fertilize in combination with seeding and can do so without damaging the seeds. Furthermore, using granular fertilizer brings about additional flexibility. With different equipment available and based on the crop’s needs, farmers can choose to spread over the crops but in specific rows next to it, e.g. for potatoes. 

Anhydrous ammonia, a combination of nitrogen and hydrogen, is an example of both a liquid and gaseous fertilizer. When pressurised, it is a liquid and also stored as such. However, when the pressure is released and under atmospheric pressure, it turns into a gas. Therefore, anhydrous ammonia is applied to the field in a gas form by injecting into the soil 13-15 cm deep using a pipe. 


What are the most critical nutrients?

1. Nitrogen

Nitrogen is of the three essential nutrients and required for the crops metabolic functions. It plays a vital role in almost all processes in the plant, from building protein to facilitating chlorophyll. How? Nitrogen helps the plant to build important structures such as nucleic acids and proteins. The quality and amount of protein found in the crop is a key metric farmers need to measure. Depending on the crops end use (e.g. human consumption, processed for alcohol) certain standars need to be met. Farmers get paid more for better quality crops.

2. Phosphorus

Phosphorous is the second of the three most critical nutrients. Therefore, maintaining the correct phosphorous levels is a primary concern of farmers at the beginning of the growing season as it promotes root development. Later in the growing season Throughout the plants life phosphorous is key in allowing the plant to store energy and its transfer across cell membranes. Phosphorous also helps to maintain the plants membrane structure. 

3. Potassium

Potassium is the final of the essential nutrients. It, too, serves many functions especially in successful enzyme activation. It also plays an important role in photosynthesis for example through transpiration. Potassium also allows plants to store water during warm weather conditions such as drought. With the correct amounts of potassium, plants also become increasingly resilient to pests.  among which are water retention and increased resilience to pests.

4. Boron

Boron enables the vital function of cell wall synthesis which allows plan cells to expand. Without the correct levels of boron plant growth is stunned. Root development and pollen production are also reduced. Such a deficiency is also visible on the leaves which become deformed. Ultimately a lack of boron leads to a lower quality harvest.

5. Sulfur

Sulfur too helps plants effectively fight diseases. It also aids in the process of photosynthesis by helping to produce the amino acids chlorophyll production. 

6. Calcium

Calcium helps to maintain the plant’s membranes and survive environmental extremes such as drought. 

7. Magnesium

Magnesium enables plants to continue their growth and development even in high temperatures, which otherwise would have slowed it down.


What about other micronutrients?

Plants contain many other elements such as sodium, iodine and silicon. These have, however, not been found to contribute essentially or significantly to the plant’s health. 


Human Nutrition

Proper human nutrition is not only dependent on yield alone. Healthy and well-developed crops are needed. Hence, maintaining the correct levels of nutrients in the soil, which gets absorbed by the plants, directly impacts us. By keeping healthy crops through fertilization, we get our daily calories, vitamins, proteins, fibre and minerals. Though we have become increasingly better at producing more better quality crops through fertilization, we need to become better at scaling. The worlds agricultural outputs need to grow by 60% to meet the demands of the global population in 2050. In our fight for a greener future and freedom from hunger, fertilizers are the key. Sustainably applying fertilizers allows us to grow more food at a better quality for an increasing population without requiring more land.

In our upcoming blog series Fertilizer Practices, we will deep-dive into the world of fertilizers and how they enable the lives of over 3 billion people today. 


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All About Maize: A Divine Crop and Alternative to Petroleum

All About Maize: A Divine Crop and Alternative to Petroleum

Corn or more frequently referred to as Maize, is the third most important cereal crop behind rice and wheat. However, for what it lacks in agricultural production compared to the other cereals today, it makes up for in cultural importance. Alike wheat and rice, maize started out as a crucial staple food for the early farmers that began to cultivate and make use of this wild grass. For the ancient Mayas and Aztecs, however, the importance of maize goes beyond its nourishment.

Humans began cultivating maize around 10 000 years ago in today’s Mexico, and since then it has been introduced to farms across the world. From the northernmost points of the globe (Canada and Russia) back to the South American continent it originated from, consumers have a plethora of maize kinds to choose from. Dent corn, flint corn, sweet corn and heirloom corn are some of the most common examples.

The ancient Mayas were an impressive people that we today remember for their innovative minds, stone temples and curious artefacts they left behind such as their famous calendar. Their empire ruled a vast geographical area stretching from the Yucatan Peninsula, today’s Guatemala, Belize and regions in Mexico. Their empire lasted for a whopping 2700 years and wherever they went, they brought along their faith and maize. According to the Mayan Origin Story, (their explanation of how life on earth came to be) corn is the most important component. According to their ancient faith, the gods called Grandfather Xpiyacoc and Grandmother Xmucane created humans out of maize. Similarly, the ancient Aztecs too believed that humans came from a maize mixture that their gods shaped and moulded. Though we today may no longer consider maize a godly crop it is still appreciated, largely due to its versatility. 

Yellow, white, red, blue, pink and striped

Today there are many different kinds of maize and used in all areas of life such as animal feed, raw material, biofuel and human food. What future purpose the cultivated maize is going to fulfil depends on its makeup, especially texture. As given by its name, Dent Corn can be recognized by a little imprint or dent on top of each kernel caused by an uneven drying of its starch components. Flour Corn on the other hand contains high levels of soft starch giving it a mealy texture. In contrast, Flint Corn has very low levels of soft starch, creating very hard kernels. Popcorn is an example of very hard Flint Corn with small hard kernels. Sweet Corn, which the most common variety eaten by humans contains high levels of sugar. This is due to that its sugar is not converted into starch. Compared to other cereals, maize contains rather low nutritional and protein levels. Hence it is not suitable to use for baking leavened goods. However, due to its texture and even sweetness, it can still be used to make delicious treats. In traditional Latin American cuisine Masa, a maize dough made from Dent Corn is used to make e.g. tortillas and tamales. In the United States, maize is also used in a variety of dishes. Whole cobs can be roasted, eaten as corn on the cob, turned into flour to make bread, pudding, and other confections.

Maize can also be used to make biofuel which is based on ethanol. The ethanol can then be mixed with gasoline to produce gasohol, which can be used as fuel for cars. Though it was initially believed that using maize to make fuel is more environmentally friendly than petroleum, for example, this is still heavily debated. The resources and land area required to produce maize could be used as food may not be the most efficient way to fuel. Today the biggest producers of maize are the United States (346.0 million metric tons/year), China (260.8 million metric tons/year) and Brazil (102 million metric tons/year). 

What are the optimal conditions for corn to grow?

Though maize crops have been modified to better adapt to different weather conditions, this crop generally does not do well in cold weather. For optimal seed germination, the soil temperature should be at least 10 degrees celsius. As with the other cereals, maize needs a fair share of water to grow. However, young maize plants are sensitive to high water levels. In waterlogged fields, they generally only survive between 48 hours to four days. This kind of water stress in maize causes restrictions on the plant’s oxygen uptake. Wet and cold weather conditions also bring about other issues. Such conditions are the ideal environment for Northern Corn Leaf Blight (NCLB). NCLB is a kind of fungal infections maize plants can suffer from and are at first usually noticed on lower leaves. At first, the site of infection have a green-grey colour and is between 3-15 cm long. Over time the lesions turn to a brown colour that also indicates the area of the plant has died. Though this fungus can impact the plant’s wellbeing and harvest outcomes, the actual maize cobs are unaffected. 

Once the little maize sprouts have emerged, the growing season is underway. Generally, maize requires between 60 to 100 days to mature and be ready for harvest. The length of the increasing period heavily depends on the weather. As mentioned, maize does not do well in cold conditions. Hence unexpected frost may extend the growing period or even kill the plants altogether. When the crops are fully grown and their moisture levels between 23-25%, the cobs are ready to be harvested. In the past, like all other crops, maize was harvested manually and later developed to include the use of animals such as horses for a horse-drawn sled cutter. The stalks of the maize were cut using the sled. However, the binding of the stalks for drying, picking the cobs and husking them still remained a completely human dependent process. The first mechanical machines were invented in the 1850s. Though maize can still be harvested manually if other equipment is unavailable, a specialised corn harvester is generally used. Among the newly invented machinery was the mechanical picker. This machine, whose much improved open versions are still around today, allows the farmer to directly and automatically pick the maize cobs from the stalks. 

Maize and remote sensing

Like other crops, maize needs to be protected from various diseases that affect its development and yield. As mentioned above, one common illness that farmers need to watch out for is Northern Corn Leaf Blight. Another fungal disease that farmers battle is the so-called Corn Smut. However, in Mexico, this infection is not always considered harmful. Here the infected but not yet fully developed galls of the maize are considered a delicacy and can be enjoyed as a taco filling. Unlike the Northern Corn Leaf Blight, Corn Smut also attacks the actual maize cobs. Corn Smut prefers warmer climates and causes significant economic losses for the farmers. Early signs of this fungal infection are white coloured galls. This later burst and release fungal spores that infect other plants. The spores can even overwinter in the soil and attack plants in the spring. Unfortunately, there are no chemical means to kill or control Corn Smut. Early detection and removing infected plants is the only way of keeping the fungus in check. However, detecting infected cobs in fast fields and doing so before the galls rupture and further the fungus’ spread is rather challenging. Using remote sensing, even maize farmers can receive a lot of help, for instance with detecting pests and infections before they have the chance to make considerable damages to the crop and yield. Early detection of infestations, even before they are visible to the human eye, are essential especially for infections that cannot be managed using chemical assistance. Monitoring maize health is not the only assistance farmers can get from remote sensing. Remote sensing can even help farmers to optimise their sowing strategies by suggesting the best sowing dates. 

Once considered a gift from the gods and the matter of which humans were created, maize in all its shapes and flavours remains an important part of many cultures cousins. With several million tonnes of corn produced and consumed each year, we may after all still be a few % maize. 


Popcorn Facts

1. Why do kernels pop?

As the kernels are heated, the water inside them expands and breaks through the hard surface and exposing the soft starchy inside. 


2. Why do some kernels not pop?

Their water content is too low. 


3. How long have humans consumed popcorn?

With the earliest evidence found in Peru, humans have enjoyed popcorn since ca 4000 BC. The kernels were tossed in hot sand until they popped. 


4. What country eats the most popcorn?

The United States.


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All About Barley: An Underdog to be Reckoned With

All About Barley: An Underdog to be Reckoned With

Beer, Bread, Soup and a Unit of Measurement

Alike wheat and rice, barley started out as a grass that has nourished humans for over 7000 years. Some of the earliest findings to the cultivation of this barley grass take us back to ancient Egyptian farmers who mastered this crop turning it into both bread and beer (a complete meal one may argue). The ancient Egyptians were, however, not the only people that took a liking to this nutty flavoured crop. Barley played an important role in cultures across the globe as an iconic ingredient in traditional Hebrew, Greek and Roman food. Even in northern Europe, the dependence on barley cannot go unnoticed. 

What do you get when you line up three grains of barley? 

This may sound like the beginning of a bad joke to our modern ears but in the 14th century England this was serious business. Alike many of the historic units of measurement, they were based on actual things and barely was a prime candidate. In 1324 King Edward II of England set a new standard for the length of one inch, which is the exact distance that 3 grains of barley span when lined up lengthwise. If this seems like an uncertain measurement that is all but an exact unit, you are not alone. The English businessmen at the time were of a similar opinion and demanded the king be more clear. This lead to the king issuing an official decree that defines the exact units which are used in England to this day. The decree stated that 3 corns of barley make one inch, twelve inches make one foot and 3 feet make up one yard. 


There are two main varieties of barley which are distinguished by the number of rows the plant has. The six-row barley has six grains per row and contains more protein which makes it especially suitable for producing animal feed. According to estimations by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) ca 70% of barley produced ends its journey as animal feed. The two-row barley only contains three grains per row and contains higher levels of sugar making it ideal for malt production used in alcoholic beverages. Malting barley gives beer, whiskey and even barley wine. When barley is used in baking such as making bread, a smaller less poofed loaf can generally be expected. Compared to wheat barley contains less gluten making it more compact and tough. Barley also has many other use cases. During the first and second world war, roasted barley was used as a substitute for coffee. Roasted barley coffee is still a popular caffeine-free alternative to traditional coffee beans today. 

Cultivation and Harvest

Much like other grains, barley is an annual crop. However, unlike the other cereals, it is especially hardy. Barley is incredibly adaptable to its environment and temperatures. For example, though the ideal temperature for barley germination ranges between 12°–25°C, any range between 4°–37°C is good enough for the crop. Barleys growing period is equally impressive. Though it ideally needs 90 days, it is able to both grow and ripen in much less time than any other cereal. During its growth, the crop also shows exceptional resistance to heat. Farmers in regions around North Africa tend to battle with near-desert conditions. However, when sowing barley in the autumn time even these conditions are no match for barley. As soon as it has ripened and the crops moisture content is below 12% it is ready for harvesting. The cultivation process of barley including sowing and harvesting is the same as that of other cereal crops. 

Disease Management 

Barley may be as close to a super crop as cereals may come, but even it has its weaknesses. A portion of the diseases that barley plants are prone to develop are shared with wheat such as brown rust, yellow rust and mildew. Ramularia is a fungal infection unique to barley and is mainly caused by infected seeds. Symptoms of this disease are characterised by small brown spots across the leave that cause it to die. What can be done about it?

With precision farming tools barley growers can receive much of the same help as wheat farmers get. Using various vegetational indices to measure the crops wellbeing and early detecting threats such as pests and diseases makes a significant difference. Similarly, correctly addressing the varying need for nutrition in a barley field too is crucial. Barley may be the most resilient cereal, but all plants need water. Using remote sensing to optimize the irrigation of barley is especially important for farmers in hotter climates. 

Barley is an impressive crop that can withstand almost anything for being a cereal. With optimized nutrition, irrigation and pest management it truly has the potential to become one of the most important crops.


Quiz Answers


1. B-vitamin

3. Coffee


2. Egypt

4. Animal feed

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