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April 12, 2024

El Niño & Fall Fertilizer: What You Need to Know

Keg River customers can rest easy. Our products get the job done even under unusual weather conditions.

Weather is one of the biggest factors affecting nutrient availability.

With our 2023/2024 winter falling in an El Niño year, it’s natural that many growers are wondering how this unusual weather will affect fertilizer applications from last fall.

It’s true that the difference between wet or dry, cold or warm, and many related environmental factors can all have a significant impact on soil conditions. This in turn can influence nutrient capture or loss.

But even in an El Niño year, there is good news if you are a user of a high-quality bentonite sulfur fertilizer, such as the products you rely on from Keg River.

Not only can a milder winter mean a longer window in late fall for fertilizer application, but it can also mean an early spring microbial activity boost helping to ensure robust activity converting your bentonite sulfur to plant-available sulfate.

Fall fertilizer value is not lost.

This is because the unique season-long, slow-release nutrient availability of bentonite sulfur is carried out by the presence and activity of beneficial soil microorganisms.

Over the winter, these soil microorganisms are typically dormant due to cold/freezing conditions. In an El Niño year, any impact is only going to be positive. Simply put, if it’s warmer, the dormant period will be shorter. So your microbial activity will have a longer window, resulting in more breakdown potential before early spring when your crop starts taking advantage of the available sulfate.

It’s interesting to note how the whole process occurs with a bentonite sulfur fertilizer. In practical terms, bentonite is an excellent vehicle to get you sulfur (eventually sulfate) where you want it. Once your product is applied, bentonite’s role is to absorb water and break down sulfur pastilles into fine elemental sulfur particles that are easy for the soil microorganisms to act on.

Typically, at the time of a fall broadcast application of Keg River product, freezing temperatures have not yet become the norm but it’s still already too cold for soil bacteria to be oxidizing sulfur. However, even at this time the process of pastilles being degraded into fine elemental sulfur particles will still carry out. With winter precipitation events and freeze-thaw cycles, some nutrient dispersion will also occur.

By spring, you will not see the pastilles on the surface any longer, however you can feel confident all the nutrient that was there before freeze up will still be there since no conversion to sulfate will have occurred over the winter months.  Warmer temperatures during an El Nino year will not be substantial enough or long enough to allow soil bacteria to become active in converting sulphur to sulfate before spring.

The bottom line: You can count on getting full value for your Keg River investment every year – even during an El Niño year.

Spring starter fertilizer can help.

Many growers choose to apply their Keg River product in the fall for both flexibility and performance advantages. Rest assured, these advantages will still hold strong even under the El Niño influenced weather conditions we have experienced.

Our experience over the years has taught us that even when weather conditions vary substantially, typically there are negligible leaching losses with elemental sulfur use.

That said, our Keg River team advises that, particularly when starting an elemental sulfur program for the first time, it can be a good practice to still furnish some ammonium sulfate (AMS) in the spring, after a fall application of elemental sulfur, as a ‘Bridge’ strategy. This approach can be helpful as growers transition to more or all elemental sulfur use, vs. AMS, when soil sulfur levels are low or in doubt. This will help to ensure there is enough sulfate available immediately in the spring, especially for sulfate-sensitive crops such as canola, which critically needs sulfate during the first four weeks. After some “Bridging” concurrent with elemental sulfur use, AMS can be reduced or eliminated since soil sulfur levels are building with the elemental sulfur use.

Jump-start on microbial activity.

Overall, think of El Niño conditions as not a threat but rather an opportunity for even greater performance from your elemental sulfur.

In a typical winter, if the timing of the milder El Niño influenced stretches is right, this can cause an uptick in early spring microbial activity and related sulfur conversion to plant-available sulfate.

Agronomists point out that with a wet winter, the resulting spring soil will be more active, with more microorganism activity and more nutrient transformations underway. This is beneficial for your bentonite sulfur fertilizer performance.

Quality always wins.

For Keg River customers, the potential for any mild weather-influenced variations in fertilizer performance is trumped by the use of quality products.

That’s why it’s always important to remember that not all elemental sulfur products are created equal. In any year – El Niño influenced or not – science shows the quality of bentonite clay used can make a big difference in degradability characteristics, which in turn can have a large influence on agronomic performance.

When farms use a product with very good bentonite clay – like the type used by Keg River – the result of the disintegration process will be sulfur with a very small particle size distribution. The literature is very strong in saying that the smaller the particle sizes, the better the conversion to sulfate and the better the resulting crop benefits.

The “quality wins” principle never changes, even under unusual weather conditions: Using a top-performing bentonite elemental sulfur has been proven time and again as one of the most effective and affordable options to provide season-long sulfur – delivering optimal fertility and soil nutrient conditions for the best results possible.

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