Humates are the most exciting input for the increase of productivity and profitability in agriculture since the advent of commercial nitrogen. What began as a critical tool in biological agriculture has rapidly become an essential performance enhancer in all types of growing enterprises. What is all the noise about and should you be investigating this strategy? This article may serve to summarise some of the many benefits of humates and hopefully inspire you to trial these inputs if you are not already using them.
Fifty years of scientific research has quantified the multiple benefits of humates derived from brown coal. Professor William Jackson has chronicled some of this research in his 1000-page, award-winning book, Organic Soil Conditioning. Humates have been shown to be a highly productive input in all forms of agriculture, in stock health management and in environmental remediation.
Nutri-Tech Solutions (NTS) have pioneered the use of humates in Australian agriculture and they export high quality humates to over forty countries. NTS has developed a wide range of humate products ranging from raw coals to humic and fulvic acid liquids, powders and granules. NTS were one of the first companies in the world to widely promote the combination of soluble humate granules with conventional fertilisers and they were early adopters in the composting and micronising of humates.
The NTS humate range involves some of the planet’s finest sources of humic and fulvic acid. These products have been proven performers in the field for over 15 years and are testimony to the quality control and product integrity for which NTS is internationally renowned.
The Mechanics of Humates
If we consider the attributes of humus in the soil we find that the long list of benefits directly parallels the benefits of humates. Humus provides pH buffering, increased heavy metal and toxin tolerance, moisture retention, microbe stimulation and support, soil structure improvement and improved nutrient uptake. Humates do the same thing, but more powerfully, because they are like a concentrated form of humus. In fact all humus naturally contains humic and fulvic acid (humates) so these natural acids can serve as a band-aid to substitute for the loss of humus in our soils.
We have lost more than two thirds of the planet’s organic carbon during the past few decades of extractive agriculture so humates have become an increasingly important tool to counter those losses. Humates, like humus, contain both negatively and positively charged sites which enable the storage of both cations and anions. The nutrient storage capacity of a soil is often measured as Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) on a soil test. A light sandy soil, for example, might have a cation exchange capacity of just five and this is a soil where your fertiliser investment is always at risk. Loss through leaching is inevitable in these soils. Humic acid has a CEC of 450 and fulvic acid has a whopping CEC of 1400 so it is not hard to imagine the benefits of combining these materials with fertilisers to reduce leaching.
Powerhouse Problem Solvers
Global heating and peak oil have highlighted the vulnerability of an agricultural system based upon petrochemicals and easily influenced by weather extremes. Humates are a multifaceted tool that addresses both situations. Humic acid is the most powerful stimulant of the beneficial fungi that build humus. This all-important intervention in the carbon cycle traps and stores CO2 that was otherwise destined for the atmosphere. This humus then retains moisture and nutrients reducing the requirement for oil-based inputs and the carbon footprint of the grower (less irrigation, diesel and chemical intervention).
Fulvic acid is the most powerful bacterial stimulant and it is these creatures which can seriously reduce the need for applied nitrogen and phosphorus. Nitrogen fixers, both free living and leguminous, are fired up by fulvic acid and can supply a natural nitrogen source that is much more plant supportive than the nitrates that pervade modern agriculture. Fulvic acid also fires the phosphate solubilising bacteria that can access the ten billion dollars of phosphate that is estimated to be locked within Australian soils.
Humate-based reductions in fertilisers, farm chemicals and irrigation requirements are impressive but there is more! Humates can neutralise chemical residues in the soil that are often compromising production. In fact humates are now considered to be the first step in environmental remediation. Even glyphosate residues (or the breakdown compound which can be even more destructive than the original) can build up in the soil and hinder growth. Humates can be utilised to remove these toxins.
If you have yet to discover the many benefits of humates, you are in for a real treat. Trial a small area and monitor the response. We have never encountered a single grower who trialled the combination of humic acid with either DAP or urea, who does not still use these products together. The easiest way to monitor the combination of DAP and humates, for example, is to compare leaf tests on treated v’s untreated crops. What you will witness is a fall off in phosphate levels in the untreated crop as the season progresses. The humate treated plants, however, will continue to access phosphate throughout the season. There is 100% more phosphate drawdown during reproduction than at the start of the crop but most of your applied acid phosphate has locked up at that point.
When Soluble Humate Granules are included with the DAP the two inputs combine to form a phosphate humate which is available throughout the crop cycle. This is a simple strategy that maximises your phosphate investment. Not only do you stabilise the phosphate and maintain access to the 70% of P that is usually lost to lockup, but you are also increasing plant availability of P via cell sensitisation (a well researched phenomenon where the cell membranes become more permeable and the plant absorbs up to 35% more than otherwise).
When humates are combined with urea, a urea humate is formed that is much more productive than the standalone urea. Not only is the urea prevented from converting to a highly leachable nitrate through this stabilisation but it is also 35% better absorbed due to the cell sensitisation phenomenon.
Cost Effective Humate Help
Many NTS growers add a little NTS Fulvic Acid Powder™ to all liquid fertilisers to chelate and magnify these inputs. A little goes a long way with this material. There is an obvious benefit from as little as 200 grams of powder per hectare. In fact, the maximum suggested rate to achieve chelation, biostimulation and fertiliser magnification is just 500 grams per hectare.
Similarly, the soluble humid acid is more cost effective than the liquid alternative. 5 kg of NTS Soluble Humate Granules™ per hectare (combined with granular fertilisers) is sufficient to achieve a suture of obvious benefits. Growers in intensive horticulture favour 10 kg of soluble humates per hectare but it is possible to see a response with just 2 kg per hectare.
This level of potency is only achieved with a humate that is derived from a source of brown coal called leonardite. The vast majority of humates in the Australian marketplace are based upon lignite which is still a valid source but has much less kick than leonardite. We commonly hear comments that it takes two to three times more of a lignite product to achieve a response comparable to the NTS leonardite-based products. If you are considering a humate trial make sure that you choose the more active alternative to avoid disappointment.
Recently we trialled humates as a standalone fertiliser at various rates. We achieved a 27% yield increase in corn at rates of 20 kg of NTS Soluble Humate Granules™ per hectare. However, there was a 9% yield reduction at 50 kg per hectare. As with most inputs there is always the risk of applying too much of a good thing. 20 kg per hectare is now the recommended top-end rate but it is well worth considering in intensive horticulture where this $50.00 per hectare investment has an impressive cost to benefit ratio.
Five Key Humate Tips
1) Combine humic acid and fulvic acid together for root crops.
We have always favoured humic acid for crops like potatoes, carrots, beetroot and sweet potato but we have recently found an increased response when these two natural acids are combined.
2) Put small amounts of humic acid in irrigation water.
There is recent evidence that this can structure water to increase plant utilisation. It is suggested that your water can become more responsive much like the effect of “melted” water which retains the crystalline structure of the ice from which it is derived. The Alaskan growing season is just ten weeks long and yet they can produce cabbages so large they must be wheel barrowed into the house.
3) Use fulvic acid with legumes.
An application of fulvic acid can create swards of clover in pasture as long as there has been a previous history of this legume. Many of our dairy farmers have been delighted with this simple trick to improve their clover to grass ratio.
4) Combine humic acid with liquid lime.
It has been found that combining Lime-Life™ with humic acid as a foliar can sponsor the release of CO2 from the carbonates in this micronised, liquid, calcium carbonate. The CO2 then increases photosynthesis which, in turn, increases yield.
5) Use fulvic acid to substitute for sunlight.
If it has been overcast for days and plants are faltering, then try a foliar application of fulvic acid. For reasons unknown (at this stage) this remarkable natural acid serves to substitute for sunlight and photosynthesis continues despite the grey skies. Golf courses have embraced fulvic acid to green up shade affected areas but there is huge potential for any crop suffering adverse weather conditions where plant vitality is affected.
It is common to suspect that if something is over-hyped it is probably too good to be true. Most times I have found this assumption to be a worthwhile protective filter, but this is not the case with humates. They are a much researched example of “The Real McCoy”. I have summarised some of the many benefits, but there are actually many more and I strongly advise you to experiment for yourself with these amazing materials.