Beneficial Crop Product or Snake Oil?
Shopping Tips for the Next Growing Season
By Dr. Michael D. Peel,
NDSU Small Grains Extension Agronomist
As another growing season draws near, you’ve probably already heard or seen products designed to improve the performance of your crop in various ways (root health,
better stand, better weed control, etc). The higher costs of nitrogen are also bringing out more alternative fertilizer products. Some suggest you can reduce nitrogen rates
by 50 to 75% and achieve an increase in yield.
It sure is tempting to try some of these products. But will they work, and will their performance justify the cost? Tough to know.
Some products may be worthwhile. Others may be nothing more than snake oil for your wheat crop. Here are a few tips that might help as you evaluate products.
Look at the Data
To substantiate claims about a product that seem too good to be true,
marketers often rely almost exclusively on testimonials. Testimonials used as the only proof of the value of a product are generally a good indicator
that a product(s) is untested or has little to offer. When data is not provided about the performance of a product, it generally means the product is
unproven. An even worse scenario is when reported data is misleading.
In reviewing information for one product of questionable value, I noted the purported increase in net profit on a crop of wheat was $28, assuming a
wheat price greater than $4 per bushel. I suppose that an increase in yield of one bushel per acre is profitable if wheat is selling at a high enough price.
Data can be misleading in other ways. An alleged increase in yield, for example. Suppose a product tested for one year at one location (in Maine,
for instance) showed an increase in yield of three bushels per acre. An honest scientist will inform you if the treatment was statistically different, or
not, from the untreated; a three bushel difference most likely is not statistically different. No matter how good a test, there is always error associated with it, to say with confidence something is different, the
measured difference must be greater than the error.
Micro-nutrients are often pushed as a magic elixir, but you will rarely see an increase in productivity on a wheat or barley crop unless the specific
micro-nutrient is limiting in your soil. Furthermore, just because a test in Maine resulted in an increase in yield has no bearing on the type of response that will be observed in North Dakota or Minnesota.
Request a Guaranteed Analysis
When considering a plant nutrient product, always request a guaranteed
analysis. Everyone is familiar with common fertilizers; for example when you purchase monoammonium phosphate with the numbers 11-52-00, you know it contains 11 pounds of nitrogen and 52 pounds of phosphate for
each 100 pounds of product. If a product being sold is supposed to replace a large portion of your nitrogen needs but has an analysis of 00-00-00, there is no guarantee it contains any N, P, or K. It is also
important to know what a product does and how it does it. In an advertisement I read online a product was described as “a natural biostimulant, containing enzymes, amino acids, plant growth hormones,
complex carbohydrates and micro-nutrients that have a significant impact on the plantsoil system.” I’m not sure what the product manufacturer meant
with this statement. Furthermore, I was not informed what or how it works in the soil, nor did I read anything that convinced me it will have a positive impact on crop productivity.
Legitimate products will have sound science-based data to support claims. The contents of the product will be described and defined in an
unambiguous manner. And most importantly, legitimate products are backed by a manufacturer warrantee. If a product contains a warranty/disclaimer in small print (such as “seller or manufacturer make no
warranty, implied or otherwise to the performance...”) then that’s a red flag for snake oil.
Furthermore, if a product claims to control a plant, insect, or disease pest, it must have an EPA registration number. If such a product does not, it is an
indication that it is not legitimate, and in fact, the individual/group manufacturing or selling it is in violation of federal law.
There may indeed be some alternative or supplemental products out there that may help improve the performance of your crop, or reduce input costs.
But bear these caveats in mind as you do your spring season shopping. If you see a product you’d like to try, consider asking the marketing rep. for
the names and phone numbers of other producers in your growing area who have used the product. Their experiences might help with your purchasing decision. Also, consider testing a new product on limited acreage,
comparing results with an adjacent area of the field that is untreated.