Why do farmers use fertilizers? Is it mandatory to use fertilizers for plants to grow? Find out the answer to these questions and more about fertilizers in the article below.
Like humans, plants need food to grow healthy, reach maturity, and produce better yields. The plants’ food consists of nutrients that are found in the ground.
Naturally, the soil already has some of these nutrients, but the proportions in which they are found depend on the soil’s type. Some soils are innately richer in nutrients, while others are poorer.
All soils are also impacted by a number of biological, physical, and chemical factors that lead to their degradation over time.
Things like climate, or repetitive crops, especially of the same types of plants, will decrease the quality of the soil by lowering the level of these nutrients found naturally in the ground.
Even the best soils will require the addition of fertilizer at some point.
Why Use Fertilizer?
Fertilizers resupply the essential plant nutrients in the soil. After fertilization, plants grow faster and healthier, they are less susceptible to various diseases caused by the lack of certain nutrients, and overall, they produce better yields.
If they did not use fertilizers, farmers would not be able to get such abundant crops from small areas of land and soils that are poor in nutrients.
Without fertilization, the soil would eventually become unproductive, and the plants would get sick and produce very poor yields. That also means that farmers would make no profit after their work.
Even the best soils cannot sustain repeated crops without the need for fertilization.
Several advantages of applying fertilizers include:
- Quickly provide nutrients for plants and restore soil’s fertility
- Increase the productivity of crops
- Reduce the risk of several plant diseases
- Help plants recover after stress
Chemical Fertilizers vs. Natural Fertilizers
Farmers and modern industrial agriculture generally rely on the usage of considerable amounts of fertilizer in order to achieve more profitable crops.
Fertilizers can be classified into chemical fertilizers and natural fertilizers.
The chemical fertilizers contain synthetic compounds used to support the deficiency of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus in the soil. They have been used increasingly in recent decades to increase the agricultural production of numerous crop types.
Chemical fertilizers are usually cheaper and can have more fruitful results in a short time. However, most chemical fertilizers have harmful effects on nature, humans, and animals.
Natural fertilizers are produced mostly from animal waste and plants (compost). If you want to learn how to make your own compost at home from food scraps and other organic matter, read this article.
Large agricultural producers often prefer to use synthetic fertilizers due to their fast effects and lower costs.
Small farmers or those who grow plants for their own consumption may prefer to use natural fertilizers.
When Should Farmers Use Fertilizers?
Knowing when to fertilize your plants is vital if you are just starting out your garden or planning to become a small farmer.
Although fertilizers applied at the right time and in suitable amounts can enhance the soil’s quality and boost plant development, excessive fertilization can lead to over-fertilization, which will damage your crop.
Another effect of the use of excessive chemical fertilizers is the proliferation of parasites such as aphids or red spider mites whose development is accentuated in crops excessively fertilized with nitrogen.
Fertilizers should only be applied when the soil is deficient in nutrients or when a plant needs more of a particular nutrient during its growth stages, such as blooming or fruit production.
To find out whether they need to apply fertilizer or not, most farmers send a soil sample to a laboratory for testing. This will tell them if the soil lacks any essential nutrients, as well as what fertilizer to choose and in what quantities.
Nutrients Needed By Plants
According to Robert L. Mahler in a paper published by the University of Idaho in 2004, plants require 17 essential elements for healthy growth. These include:
- Nitrogen (N)
- Phosphorus (P)
- Potassium (K)
- Calcium (Ca)
- Magnesium (Mg)
- Carbon (C)
- Iron (Fe)
- Zinc (Zn)
- Hydrogen (H)
- Copper (Cu)
- Oxygen (O)
- Sulfur (S)
- Boron (B)
- Nickel (Ni)
- Chlorine (Cl)
- Manganese (Mn)
- Molybdenum (Mo)
Three of these (carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen) are acquired from water, air, or both. Thus, they are not included in fertilizers.
The other 14 essential elements left are divided into two groups:
- Soil-derived macronutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S).
- Soil-derived micronutrients: boron (B), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), chlorine (Cl), manganese (Mn), zinc (Zn), molybdenum (Mo), and nickel (Ni).
The most important elements for plant development are the macronutrients which are present in plants’ structure in relatively high concentrations.
These are also the most common nutrients included in commercial fertilizers, especially nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) which are found in various ratios depending on the plant type the fertilizer is intended to be used for. We have covered more about this topic in our article titled, how to choose a fertilizer based on its N-P-K ratio.
Soil Fertilization Vs. Foliar Fertilization
Although traditional fertilization is done at ground level, there is a relatively newer technique used by farmers that involves applying liquid fertilizer directly on the leaves of the plants so that they absorb the essential elements through their leaves. This type of fertilization is called foliar fertilization.
Researches show that foliar fertilization should not be seen as an alternative to soil fertilization, but as an effective way to supplement it.
Two of the advantages of foliar fertilization include faster absorption of the nutrients compared to soil fertilization and quicker recovery of plants affected by some type of stress.
Fertilizers play an essential role in today’s agriculture. Farmers and plant growers use fertilizers to obtain plants that produce faster and better harvests, as well as to reduce the risk of the occurrence of a number of diseases caused by the deficiency of particular nutrients in the soil.
Although chemical fertilizers can have negative effects on the environment by polluting groundwater and rivers, there are also natural fertilizers that can be used without adverse effects.