The new fertilizer fundamentals

May 24, 2017 -  By

Less Filler
Long-term savings may balance out higher upfront costs of enhanced efficiency fertilizers. Photo: Koch Turf & Ornamental

LCOs are increasing productivity by changing the way they use fertilizers with enhanced efficiency and hybrid products.

There’s always a better way to do something—even apply fertilizer. By embracing industry trends, some lawn care operators (LCOs) are saving time, money and manpower by changing the ways they use and purchase fertilizer. In particular, enhanced efficiency fertilizers and organic/synthetic hybrid products are seeing greater adoption.

“With more demands for LCOs to meet objectives operationally, economically and environmentally, they are looking at lots of different ways to run their businesses,” says Paul McDonough national account manager for Koch Turf & Ornamental. “Especially when it comes to fertilization.”

Covering more ground

McDonough says he’s seen an increase in lawn care professionals switching to enhanced efficiency fertilizers (EEFs) and using fertilizer blends with higher percentages of EEF technology and fewer fillers, which don’t contribute to plant health. EEFs are fertilizer products that allow increased plant uptake and reduce the potential of nutrient losses to the environment when compared to conventional products. Sulfur- and polymer-coated urea products, natural organic fertilizers and stabilized nitrogen are all considered EEFs.

EEFs also allow for more time between fertilizer applications, resulting in the need to buy, store and transport fewer bags of fertilizer throughout the season, McDonough says. In many cases, costs may be higher per bag, but with less filler, EEFs can ultimately lower annual fertilizer costs.

“A lot of (LCOs) are smartening up to the fact that they used to buy product that had a lot of filler in the bag with a low analysis and a low portion of enhanced efficiency fertilizer,” he says. “Now they’re realizing if they use a product with less filler and more enhanced efficiency fertilizer, the bag may cost more, but they can cover more ground with fewer bags at a lower cost per acre.

“It’s a different way to fertilize now—it doesn’t have to be done every five to six weeks,” McDonough says. “LCOs can double or triple the time between applications with the technology available.”

Fewer visits to each property is not only an advantage to the contractor but to the homeowner, too, says John Fowler, vice president of sales for Anuvia Plant Nutrients’ turf division.

“(Clients) really don’t want to see you a bunch of times, so if you can deliver the same results in fewer visits, that’s a huge advantage to the homeowner,” he says.

With the green industry’s ever-present challenge of finding quality employees, the ability to provide fewer annual fertilizer applications per customer or an applicator’s ability to treat more lawns per day reduces labor demands, McDonough says.

“It’s not just the labor of making the applications but also loading and unloading the trucks, blowing off driveways and sidewalks,” McDonough says. “It’s always a challenge finding dependable labor, so contractors are looking at anything they can do to require less labor.”

Rise in hybrids

Jeff Leuzinger, sales manager for Healthy Grow, an organic fertilizer manufacturer in Pearl City, Ill., says the organic fertilizer market has grown considerably over the years. He has seen a particular increase in contractors offering hybrid programs, which use a combination of organic and synthetic products. Leuzinger says the biggest opportunity for future growth in use of organics is in the South where grass grows year-round.

“There is a lot of action when it comes to hybrid programs, giving everyone the best of both worlds,” he says. “Contractors have a lot of customers who want to contribute in a positive way to environment. For them, using organics is a good way to do that.”

Rachelle Kemp, technical services specialist for The Grounds Guys, a full-service landscape firm headquartered in Waco, Texas, with more than 180 franchise locations throughout the country, agrees that hybrid programs are growing in popularity as more consumers become aware of the risks of misusing lawn care products. Hybrid programs are a happy medium for eco-conscious homeowners who still desire a green, healthy lawn.

“Some clients want organic but are not patient enough for the results, which typically take longer,” she says. “Today’s society is used to instant gratification, and organic fertilizers may not make the color, bloom or other desirable features in the plant that clients are accustomed to, so synthetics offer a backup.”

Leuzinger says both customers and LCOs have embraced organic fertilizers for many reasons. New research and technology have resulted in more effective products, and increased effort is being made to understand soil health. LCOs are embracing these findings by incorporating them into their programs.

Solidify
Many LCOs now prefer granular over liquid fertilizers. Photo: The Ground Guys

“People are seeing results, and we have better research in the last five years,” Leuzinger says. “There is a lot more happening and more discoveries being made in the biological world when it comes to soil health, which has helped develop products that work a lot better.”

Kemp says she is seeing an increase in LCOs who prefer granular fertilizers instead of liquid versions. She says granular products are easier to apply and have less drift and better residual. Granular products do not require a water source at the time of application, and spreaders are less expensive than spray rigs. Kemp adds that some states allow granular applications without an applicator’s license.

“It is also easier to dispose of the granular bags than the liquid bottles,” Kemp says. “This makes for faster cleanup by putting granular bags in the trash rather than having to triple-rinse a bottle, wrap it and, in some cases, take it to the refuse station for chemicals.”

Regulatory impact

Regulations are also playing a role in the way LCOs use fertilizers. Many states have bans or blackout periods that restrict the use of fertilizers containing nitrogen or phosphorus because of their impact on waterways. Leuzinger says this makes it difficult to apply any fertilizers—even organics—because phosphorus is one of the product’s fundamental components. But some states, such as Illinois and Wisconsin, permit the use of phosphorus as long as it comes from a natural source. For example, the phosphorus source in Healthy Grow fertilizers is chicken manure, so it is exempt from the law.

“Some states really go too far on the phosphorus ban, which prevents us from being able to sell our products and prevents LCOs from enjoying the benefits of it,” Leuzinger says. “I think the regulations hurt more than help.”

McDonough says regulations make contractors and LCOs think differently about how they apply fertilizer, and they also strengthen the case for enhanced efficiency products.

“In some cases there are regulatory pressures to apply less product, so if you have to apply less product, you want to make sure what you’re applying is having the maximum effect,” he says. “You want to make sure what you put out is being used optimally.”

 

About the Author:

Emily Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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