Most liquids are made up of powder and granular ingredients. When it comes to fertilizer if you want the most cost-effective products with the highest amount of control & concentration powder and granular fertilizers have many advantages to liquid.
In today’s market of legalization, margins on products are coming down forcing growers to cut costs where possible. One of the largest recurring hard expenses is fertilizer. Most growers also realize the quality of your fertilizer can often dictate the quality and yield of the plants. However, a lot of high-quality fertilizers (powder or liquid) currently in the industry are too expensive for use on a commercial scale. If you look at some of the least expensive fertilizers on the market they are often petroleum-derived and contain many heavy metals & compounds that can be bad for the plants, people and the environment.
Due to recent technological developments, it is easier to apply organic nutrients much like you traditionally would synthetics. The answer to a mass adoption of organics, was not only in making the cost of operation more affordable achieving higher profit margin. For commercial growers the real trick is to make the products able to run in their systems and fall under the traditional set it and forget it hydroponic mindset. Which would also mean that large amounts of sediment left in the bottom of hydroponic reservoirs creates a problem. Traditional organics unfortunately fails in most of these 101 areas of agriculture.
Traditional agriculture uses predominantly soilless media, drip systems, fertigation systems, inline water treatment and filtration systems, and pressure compensating drip emitters. Most traditional organics fertilizers do not work in these systems due to the clumpy and chunky non-soluble powders & thick liquids that leave behind a lot of sediment and cause bio-slime. We now have the technology to make our powders smaller more easily soluble and even use technology to do fun things like nanoparticle enzymatic encapsulation.
Instead of telling a large-scale commercial cultivation facility the only way they can become a 100% organic cultivation company is to change their entire operation. This would include switching over media, potting system and size, incorporate composting, top dressing, cover crop, spike layer and zoning into media, and even need to learn how to monitor bacterial versus fungal populations, beneficial nematode population, ciliate vs flagellate and general soil health. This simply is not feasible when you start talking about hundreds of thousands of square feet of warehouse and acres of greenhouse. They need to have cost-effective, easy to run products that allow them the maximum control for what their plants specifically need.
Higher concentration and higher percentage of active ingredients is the name of the game with powders and granular fertilizers. Depending on the extraction methods this can yield concentrations up to 99% active ingredient. This effectively it means a grower needs less product to cover a larger volume of treated water or plants. Depending on the cost of that fertilizer this should lead to a lower fertilizer cost per gallon. Effectively the higher concentration of active ingredient the lower the cost should be. Unfortunately some manufacturers do realize they have a high quality product and a high concentration or are not able to scale production quickly enough. They may also not have access to enough material; have an efficient enough manufacturing packaging or a logistics process, or other things that can a tribute to costs associated with a product that is not commercially affordable. Concentration percentage and the type of active ingredient being extracted go hand-in-hand.
Powdered products can be used in a more versatile manner than liquid products. They can be used in soil amending, top-dressing, reservoir applications, compost teas, foliar applications, spiked layer and zoning. Liquid products are less versatile with root drenching and foliar feeding being the main ways they can be applied.
Powdered fertilizers are most cost-effective because they eliminate the expense of shipping and handling of water, excess containers and low concentration of active ingredients. They also eliminate spoilage of liquid based products that have a relatively short lifespan or temperature tolerance.
Many fertilizers come from overseas manufacturers and/or are stored in a warehouse that many times is not heated. Neither are the trucks that they use. This all means a lot of uncontrolled environments and liquid being one of the best temperature conductors, heats up very easily. During transportation and storage, the temperatures most liquid fertilizers need to be kept at are not respected. This leads to a dramatically reduced shelf life. This shelf life may not be accurate even to what is printed on the bottle. Furthermore, I see a lot of Growers storing their nutrients in direct light, heat and frequently without a proper cap or lid. Sometimes we wonder why are plants are turning yellow? The problem is once the shelf life of a product is being pushed you can have irregularities in the manufacturer’s formulation for its intended purpose.
The shelf life of powder is much easier to control. Due to the fact that powders do not need preservatives fillers or stabilizers to keep the product evenly mixed and suspended, as well as they do not conduct temperature as easily as liquid, the shelf life is extended dramatically. When stored correctly, many powders and granular fertilizers have an unlimited shelf life. With the exception of biologicals that normally have about two year shelf life. The only thing to dramatically affect the shelf life of powders is if you get them wet. It is still best to keep them up off the floor in a nice dark dry room. It is best to keep bulk bags in a storage area and use smaller containers or Tupperware to have your weekly supply on hand. This will eliminate cross-contamination, water spillage and anything else from happening to your bulk bags of powder.
How much shipping and handling goes into your fertilizer? Well if you’re buying it from overseas, a lot. The more time spent shipping and handling a product the more expensive it is to ensure that that product arrives to you with the maximum shelf life possible. Also the more shipping that you have on a product the more cost you associate with that product. For example a lot of times manufacturers see the exact same cost of shipping products to their distributors or retailers as the products cost to manufacture themselves.
Powders give growers more control. Usually when you buy powdered fertilizer you are buying either a blend or ingredients individually. If you have an agronomist on-site, access to a consultant, or are a super mega genius scientist you can fine tune and control each individual ingredient of your nutrient formulation specifically for what your plants need. There is never one variable in the garden that changes on its own everything must be adjusted accordingly. This goes for individual nutrients and their ratio in relationship with other nutrients. Being able to buy just an amino acid and separately, individual humic acid and separately individual phosphorus has huge benefits. When you can control your nutrient formula and environment in symbiotic relationship to one another you can dial in your grow to achieve the best cost efficiencies and production.
Most often, the finer the powder, the faster it mixes and the faster it can be up taken by plants. There are a lot of micronized products on the market and there are an impressive number of technologies being added to the micronized process. Some of these processes allow nutrients to homogenize better into solution, solubilize faster, be up taken faster by plants, and even work with biology better. A lot of processes in a carbon base system require biology to break down the nutrient before it can be fed to the plant. The size of these particles dictates the length of time required to break down that nutrient which makes using the highest amount of bacteria, number of species, inoculants and soil as possible. The higher amount of bacteria in your soil the faster the nutrients become available but an added bonus is the plant is also sweating out of its roots.
The sweat is called an exudation. In a true carbon-based living system plant exudations are food for the microbes and the microbe exudations are food for the plants; it’s a closed loop system. The important thing to know is true living systems do not require a lot of input and should be a closed loop system. However in container gardening with the high demands placed on cultivation, some type of additional input is required to achieve maximum results. Traditional organics require a good deal of time to break down. Depending on the amount of biology in the soil, some rock dusts and other minerals can take anywhere from one to six months before they become available. If a plant is only in that soil for 90 days then you can potentially be wasting money or just calculating the timing of your nutrient availability incorrectly. I am a firm believer in putting your slow break down nutrients in a light to medium volume in your soil every time you use it (if you are mixing soil), and feeding micronized carbon-based nutrients through a drip system which will be fast break down and availability to your plans.
The push to find the best fertilizer for this industry is on. Everyday new process, minerals, ingredients, bacteria, and technology are being discovered. The race to find the most cost-effective, high concentration, plant maximizing, and sustainable ingredients will revolutionize agriculture and horticulture as we know it.
Petroleum-based fertilizer is a contributor to algae bloom and anaerobic bacterial growth in lakes, streams, rivers and ponds. Let’s look at the effects of petroleum-based fertilizer on plants and the biological rhizosphere encapsulating the root system vs carbon-based organic biologically friendly systems.
Petroleum-based fertilizers are chelate based. This means that they rely on their ingredients sticking to plant roots and then being broken down by water which force feeds the ingredients into the plant and causes growth. This force-fed action of giving nutrients to plants can cause imbalance in ratios, burning, pH lockout, nutrient precipitation and exudation, as well as a lot of buildup in the media. Many growers use other products to break down these salt builds up buildups and flush them out of the media. A lot of times when growers see plants imbalanced or locked out they add more nutrients or feeding heavier, making the issue worse. That is one of the biggest problems with petroleum-based fertilizers is they are too fast acting sometimes.
Carbon based fertilizers require biology and size of the particle to be taken up by plants. Carbon-based is the technicality for what organic really is. Carbon-based fertilizers are usually byproducts from plants, animals or minerals. They require a much higher degree of symbiosis between bacteria in the soil, the media and the plant. When this is achieved the biology in the soil works together to help support the immune system of the plant. This allows plants to achieve much higher yields, growth rates, nutrient density and quality. Nutrient density is the key to life. Higher nutrient dense foods and crops do not need to yield as much to have the same contribution.
Most petroleum-based fertilizers are actually waste or byproduct from the oil and gas industry, with many of these ingredients and compounds traditionally being considered “trash”. The first transition of these chemicals was into the form of herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. Later, manufacturers realized that with a little bit more chemistry, they could turn some of these same ingredients and compounds into fertilizers.
Most liquid fertilizers start as powders and granulars. Using heating, cooling and other processes manufacturers are able to solubilize higher amounts of ingredients per volume of water to attain a higher concentration. The problem is once you achieve a certain concentration you have what is called fallout. A lot of hydroponic fertilizers on the market have fallout already occurring at the time of purchase. If you’ve ever gotten a liquid fertilizer that has clumps and chunks in it already this is the case. The problem is once precipitants start falling out of a solution it means the formulation of the fertilizer begins missing pieces and becomes incomplete. Most of the time these precipitants are quite difficult to solubilize unless they put through additional heating and cooling processes.
Most liquid fertilizers typically come from a stock tank solution that has been watered down to about 10%. Hydroponic fertilizer companies offer a wide variety of products, but unfortunately many of them are very similar. Because many of these products contain the same ingredients in multiple bottles it is easy to overload or create an imbalance in nutrient ratios. And this can lead to lower yields and higher expenses.
A stock tank solution is the most common hydroponic nutrient found in retail stores. A traditional stock tank is about one pound of fertilizer for one gallon of water. This mixture is solubilized, sometimes with warm or high temperature water. It then sits in a reservoir and eventually given to plants.
Some powders are hydrophobic nutrients and can be used in a fertilizer regiment. The easiest way to solubilize a hydrophobic nutrient or any nutrient for that matter is to use a premix container. The premix container can be as simple as a 1 gallon jug or a 5 gallon bucket. Add some water from the hydroponic reservoir, add the powder that that will be treated into the bucket and mix it thoroughly. This mix should then be added into the larger volume of nutrient reservoir solution. This concept is very similar to a protein shake or adding a packet of Kool-Aid mix into water. Most liquid fertilizers offer an advantage in this area. Liquid nutrients are in a solubilized state already and do not need to be mixed into a reservoir solution.
Follow these four steps to calculate fertilizer cost per gallon.
Discovery- Product, size, app rate, ego discount (50%)
Convert ML- concentrate total ML volume divide by usage rate
Divide MSRP by # of gallons product is able to make (high/low end)
Tate Dooley is the founder and CEO of Key To Life inc & Optimize Horticulture Consulting.