To raise the crops to feed the world, first you need to feed the crops.
Dr. Mike McLaughlin, an expert on phosphorus, potassium and micronutrients, recently was named the recipient of the 2015 IFA Norman Borlaug Award. He has conducted soil science and fertility research on five continents: Africa, Australia, Asia, and North and South America.
“It was very exciting to hear the news … a nice surprise,” Dr. McLaughlin says. He was selected for the honor from among a short list of 10 of the top soil fertility and plant nutrition scientists in the world.
With 30 years’ experience in soil fertility and plant nutrition research, McLaughlin conducts research on fertilizing Australia’s principal crops: wheat, barley, canola, lupin beans, forages and field peas, on behalf of Australia’s farmer organizations, like the Grains Research and Development Corporation and Meat and Livestock Australia. He also works on corn and soybean fertility research for The Mosaic Company, directing local cooperators and field trials in North and South America. Dr. McLaughlin is a science fellow in Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and a research professor in soil science at the Waite Campus of the University of Adelaide.
McLaughlin also serves as the subject in a series of educational videos about crop plant nutrition, recently launched by the Mosaic Company. In the first edition, Dr. McLaughlin offers his views of current fertilizer research and its likely future direction.
McLaughlin says that current fertility science focuses on complete crop nutrition: “Previously, we tended to focus on single-nutrient fertilizers like urea, or NP fertilizers that combine nitrogen and phosphorus, like MAP and DAP,” he explains. “Increasingly, farmers want each granule (of fertilizer) to have ‘the full meal’ — nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese and others — to make sure that all the nutrients are in each granule, and there’s nothing limiting the plant uptake of the nutrients. That outlook really goes back two centuries to Liebig’s Law of the Minimum: It only takes [the scarcity of] one nutrient, and then the plant can’t grow the way it ought to.”
You can put the compounds in the soil in the right ratios, but how do you know what they are doing once they are down there? McLaughlin is an innovator in understanding the behavior of nutrients, and the science of following them through their entire life cycle using techniques like isotope tracing.
IFA, the International Fertilizer Industry Association, with 550 members in about 86 countries, has awarded its Norman Borlaug prize every year since 1993.
Not only does the IFA Norman Borlaug Award recognize achievements in fertilizer science, it also emphasizes the effective communication of those findings to farmers. The organization states, “Research alone is not enough to achieve meaningful progress at the farm level. Effective knowledge transfer is needed for the wider adoption of improved nutrient management practices.”
IFA noted McLaughlin’s ability to communicate effectively with the people who can put that knowledge to use.
“In Australia, we have field days — we call them ‘Sticky Beaks’ — to give the farmer the opportunity to poke around and look at trials and results,” says McLaughlin. “My colleagues and I attend these events across Southern Australia and present the latest updates to growers.”
When high-quality, highly useful information is offered, farmers respond. IFA noted the incredible interest generated by a brochure about phosphorus use in the wake of an unprecedented six-year drought in Australia that occurred between 2005 and 2010.
“Farmers wanted to know, ‘if and when we do get rain, do we put fertilizer on?’” McLaughlin recalls, describing the situation Australia’s farmers found themselves in. “‘We’ve got three or four years where we’ve put [phosphorus] fertilizer on, and the crops haven’t really taken anything out of the soil.’
“We put out a fact sheet and suggested that fertilizers could be reduced from normal levels, because there wouldn’t be the same amount of reactions that would have occurred to ‘tie up’ the nutrients. However, we still suggested to put on enough to replace what the crop might take off, which is called a maintenance application. You just replace any nutrients taken off by the crop. Often, farmers will put on more than that, to allow for losses and ‘tie-up’ in the soil. The brochure was downloaded heavily and helped farmers in their decision making on fertilizer application.”