Agricultural Revolution Demands Specialty Fertilizers and Soil Amendments

This article was co-authored by:

Shane Le Capitaine
Thermal Processing Expert

Carrie Carlson
Technical Writer

The agriculture industry is in the throws of a revolution; feeding the world’s estimated 2050 population of more than 9 billion people on less arable land proves to be the challenge that defines this generation. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), this population jump will require a 60% increase in crop production compared to 2005/2007 levels.

Unfortunately, environmental challenges, nutrient deficiencies, and other critical mounting issues are adding to the urgency of resolution, pushing a surge in demand for better crop nutrient management, and in turn, the production of specialty fertilizer and soil amendment products.

Factors Pushing Demand for Better Nutrient Management

A number of factors are contributing to an imbalance of nutrients all over the globe.

This imbalance of nutrients, in fact, is recognized by the FAO as a threat to sustainably managing the world’s soils (and using those soils to feed our growing population). The primary factors driving demand for better nutrient management are outlined below.

Nutrient Runoff & the Environment

Nutrient runoff and its associated issues have been an escalating issue around the world in recent years; sources of drinking water are being polluted and “dead zones” (eutrophic areas in waterways) are resulting in die-offs of aquatic life and other ecological consequences.

While nutrient runoff comes from a variety of sources, one of the primary sources of blame is attributed to the agriculture industry, prompting a call for better management of nutrients on farms.

At the same time, farmers are continually looking to prevail over a tough economy, necessitating greater efficiency of the fertilizers they apply in order to avoid waste and achieve the highest yield rates possible.

As nutrient runoff and its associated risks continue to gain global attention, efforts to curb runoff have resulted in a greater understanding of how it can be mitigated or reduced while still maximizing the potential of the applied nutrients.

This has ushered in a new movement in agriculture: 4R Nutrient Stewardship – a concept that combines best practices to maximize nutrient availability and effectiveness. The program focuses on delivering the right source of nutrients at the right rate and time, and in the right place.

A number of variables can affect the propensity for nutrient runoff. Distance to bedrock, weather patterns, nutrient forms and quantities, soil conditions, and more, all influence the potential for nutrient runoff to occur. Zeroing in on these factors for each unique application in order to work with them to provide the best nutrient application is what 4R Nutrient Stewardship is all about. As such, 4R Nutrient Stewardship looks to be a key tool in reducing runoff.

Soil Nutrient Deficiencies

Scientists around the world are recognizing that soils are becoming increasingly deficient in the nutrients required for healthy and fruitful plants.

Generations of continued harvesting and replanting, combined with a focus on the primary macronutrients, has broken the natural nutrient cycle, leaving soils depleted of the nutrients and organic matter necessary for soil (and crops) to thrive – a major threat to increasing food production.

This degradation of soils can be seen in humans as well; science has proven in many cases that the crops we eat today offer less nutrient value than crops grown in prior generations.

In addition, nutrient deficiency can have devastating consequences to human health and wellbeing. Zinc, for example, is an essential micronutrient and has become the most common nutrient deficiency in soils around the globe, resulting in subsequent zinc deficiency in humans that rely on cereal crops from these regions for sustenance. Zinc deficiency in people is associated with a variety of health problems and often results in stunted growth and even death.

This has caused a scramble for growers to improve the nutrition of our crops through better nutrient management.

The importance of every single nutrient

As scientists look at how to maximize crop yields to feed the growing population, the importance of each and every single nutrient is becoming more apparent. No longer is it acceptable to simply apply the primary macronutrients and hope for the best; growers now know that a deficiency in any one nutrient, no matter how small the amount required by the plant, can cause growth and production issues, potentially limiting yield.

Similarly, applying the proper amount of each nutrient is also critical in feeding the plant and avoiding runoff issues. Growers are beginning to understand that maximum yield lies in providing optimal nutrition for the given crop and its surroundings.

Improved Nutrient Management Through Specialty Fertilizer & Soil Amendment Products

The factors described above are culminating to drive major changes in nutrient management, particularly when it comes to what we apply to our soils. A wave of new and improved soil conditioners and fertilizers, combined with other nutrient management best practices, is changing the way we feed our crops.

While traditional fertilizers are still a critical tool in crop production, a portion of this market has given way to specialty fertilizer products and additives. Producers are rising to the challenge, providing a myriad of specialty fertilizer and soil amendment products that promise to deliver optimal nutrition for a given application (as well as other benefits that will help to maximize the effectiveness of the product). Mordor Intelligence estimates the specialty fertilizer market will see a staggering CAGR of 7.5% from 2018 to 2023.

Crop type, regional considerations, soil type, climate, and more will all influence how (and what) a given application should be optimized for. Specialty fertilizers and soil amendments encompass a wide array of products, but the overarching theme lies in customization. Below are some key trends arising in specialty fertilizer products:

Secondary Nutrients

The inclusion of secondary macronutrients in fertilizers and soil amendments is a prevailing movement, as growers increasingly see the importance each nutrient contributes to crop yield and overall resilience. Secondary macronutrients, referring to their place in required quantity next to primary macronutrients (Nitrogen – N, Phoshporus – P, and Potassium – K), are Magnesium (Mg), Sulfur (S), and Calcium (Ca).

While these secondary nutrients were long supplied (and still are) through supplemental applications of the individual nutrient, they are increasingly being incorporated into primary nutrient fertilizers and other soil conditioners to provide improved nutrition.


The use of sulfur has particularly been on the rise, as the Acid Rain act inadvertently reduced the amount of sulfur plants were receiving. Sulfur can be applied on its own, or as part of another compound fertilizer or soil amendment. Common sources of sulfur might include:

  • Elemental Sulfur
  • NPKS
  • Ammonium Sulfate
  • Potassium Sulfate (K2SO4)
  • Potassium Magnesium Sulfate (often supplied through application of langbeinite- K2Mg2(SO4)3)
  • Organic matter
  • Gypsum (Calcium sulfate dihydrate)


Magnesium may also be supplemented in a variety of ways, whether it be used alone or added to a compound fertilizer formulation. Sources of magnesium often include:

  • Potassium Magnesium Sulfate (often supplied through application of langbeinite – K2Mg2(SO4)3)
  • Limestone (Dolomite)


Similarly, calcium can also be supplemented through a variety of products, or included as part of a compound fertilizer formulation. Common sources of calcium include:

  • Calcium nitrate
  • Calcium phosphate
  • Calcium silicate
  • Limestone
  • Bone Meal
  • Gypsum (Calcium sulfate dihydrate)


Micronutrients, which plants require to an even lesser degree than secondary macronutrients, are also being increasingly employed in the effort to improve crop nutrition and yield. Micronutrients include:

  • Boron (B)
  • Chlorine (Cl)
  • Manganese (Mn)
  • Iron (Fe)
  • Nickel (Ni)
  • Copper (Cu)
  • Zinc (Zn)
  • Molybdenum (Mo)

Micronutrients can be applied through the use of organic matter, which is often rich in micronutrients, or as part of a fertilizer or soil amendment product. There are also a variety of fertilizer and soil amendment products dedicated to providing these essential nutrients.

Organic Matter

While not a nutrient, organic matter is still a critical component in soil health and its ability to produce fruitful and nutritious crops. Organic matter provides a number of benefits, including enhanced soil structure, greater resistance to erosion, improved ability to retain water and nutrients, and enhanced nutrient uptake by plants. Organic matter can also be used as a source of microbes, as well as an ideal microbial environment. Ultimately, it creates an environment to allow nutrients to function as is needed for the plant.

Organic matter can be incorporated into specialty fertilizer and soil amendment products through a variety of materials. This may include:

  • Humate
  • Manure
  • Chicken Litter
  • Biochar
  • Compost
  • Agricultural residues
  • Food residues
  • Biosolids
  • Worm Castings
  • Microbes
  • And more…

Improved Performance and Handling

In addition to the unique formulation, a number of ways to improve how a fertilizer handles and performs have been developed as well.

Blends to All-in-One Granules

Fertilizer blends, in which primary components are separately manufactured and blended together to create a mixture that meets an overall nutrient grade, are still widely employed. However, instead of simply mixing these separate nutrient granules, producers are moving toward manufacturing complex fertilizers – granules with the entire formulation in every pellet. This approach prevents issues associated with nutrient segregation, making results more predictable and effective.

Granules Over Powders

Similarly, the application of nutrients in powder form has been phasing out due to the many benefits of granules over powders, including:

  • Reduced product lost as dust
  • More predictable and accurate results
  • Easier handling and application
  • Reduced windblown product
  • Mitigation of powder being carried away by rainfall (granules provide a more controlled approach to delivery and won’t wash away with rain)

Performance Additives

A number of additives to improve handling and performance are also being incorporated into specialty fertilizer and soil amendment products to create better-performing products. This includes:

Coating agents
  • To maintain product integrity throughout its lifecycle
  • To control nutrient release over time (i.e. controlled release, or slow release)
  • To reduce attrition (the breakdown of granules into dust)
  • To inhibit moisture penetration
  • To promote moisture penetration
Anti-caking agents
  • To maintain product integrity and prevent caking during storage or transport

Specialty Fertilizer Process & Product Development

The changing industry has also resulted in a growing demand for batch and pilot testing facilities. Producers are looking to test out new products and develop samples for growth trials in an effort to optimize their products according to customer demands.

“We have always been working with customers to develop specialty fertilizer products in our testing facility,” says Nick Reckinger, FEECO BioResource Sales Engineer, “but the past few years, we’ve really seen increasing interest. Producers are looking to create site-, region-, or crop-specific products to optimize nutrition and soil health. They’re bringing all sorts of ideas to the table. It’s been very rewarding to be a part of that development process.”

Some companies have even been investing in their own granulation pilot plants for convenient, on-site development.


The agriculture industry is undergoing a revolution in nutrient management in an effort to curb runoff issues, feed a growing population, and address nutrient imbalances across the globe. This revolution can be seen in the growing market of specialty fertilizer and soil amendment products, which are tailored to provide optimal nutrition for a given application.

FEECO has been working in the fertilizer industry since 1951, developing custom fertilizer products and the processes to create them. Whatever your fertilizer production needs – batch testing, a pilot plant, custom equipment, or otherwise – our experienced team of engineers can help turn your idea into a commercial-scale operation. For more information, contact us today!

About the Authors . . .

Shane Le Capitaine is a Process Sales Engineer and thermal processing and fertilizer production expert.

More About Shane

Carrie Carlson is a technical writer and visual designer.

More About Carrie