Agricultural lands have experienced a significant boost in yields thanks to a better understanding of plant physiology and biochemistry. Farmers are even able to make soils more favorable for plant growth due to the introduction of fertilizers. Currently, there are two types of fertilizers, the commercially available inorganic fertilizer and the other is organic fertilizer derived from biosolids.
Plant growth increases significantly because of two primary nutrients that are commonly found in fertilizers: nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P). Other important nutrients include sulfur, magnesium, calcium, iron, chlorine, boron, copper, manganese, molybdenum and zinc.
Inorganic vs Organic Nitrogen Fertilizers
Inorganic nitrogen fertilizers are created from a chemical process that converts ammonia to a stable liquid formulation where other nutrients may also be added. Although the N fertilizers are stable, a process of volatilization may occur which could release N back into the atmosphere. The N configuration that is essential for plant growth is nitrate (NO3). These are water soluble and can easily leach into the soil once there is precipitation. Only a small proportion of N is taken up by the plants however so considerable losses do occur.
Organic nitrogen fertilizers are sourced from animal manure and biosolids. The nitrogen from these organic wastes need to be converted through chemical processes to form the type of nitrogen that the plant can absorb. Nitrogen from organic material are released in a slow but steady rate which make them more likely to be available during the growing season when plants need it most. This property of organic fertilizers is the main reason why they often outperform their inorganic counterparts and produce excellent crop yields. Consequently, excessive amounts of organic fertilizers can result in nitrate contamination of surface and groundwater.
Phosphorus and Other Nutrients in Biosolids
In addition to nitrogen, biosolids have a whole complement of other essential nutrients that are required by plants. Phosphorus (P) is a nutrient needed for plant growth because it plays an essential role in energy processes in plant cells. It is not able to leach as deep into the soil the way N does so uptake is lower. Experiments have shown that biosolids-based fertilizers have yields that average 5% greater compared to inorganic sources of N-fertilizer plus phosphorus and zinc equivalencies.
Because fertilizers can artificially boost nutrient levels in soil, environmental and health issues may arise specifically from water-based nitrates that may leach into the surface and groundwater. Too much nitrogen in the drinking water can result in a medical condition called methemoglobinemia in which the blood is unable to carry sufficient oxygen to individual body cells. Too much phosphorus from agricultural runoffs can increase the growth of algae in surface waters which depletes oxygen and kills fish in a process called eutrophication.
Organic fertilizers from biosolids have been a tremendous boon for farmers worldwide and it helps recycle wastewater material which would have otherwise just polluted the environment. These farmers however need to apply only the recommended rates to prevent the application of excessive nitrates and phosphorus in the soil to provide adequate nutrients for crops without damaging the ecology and the health of the surrounding community.
If you are a farmer in the Niagara Region and are interested in considering biosolids as a potential application to your fields, please call us on 1 (877) 479-1388. There is no cost for us to apply to the MOE or to spread biosolids on your field. These costs are covered by the Region of Niagara.