The University of Illinois has high hopes for this organic product

A newly developed organic fertilizer has yielded encouraging results in University of Illinois studies. Dr. Tom Fermanian, U of I turf researcher, conducted studies on one of the newest organic products, a corn-based fertilizer made from lysine, an amino acid. Fermanian’s studies indicated that similar results were obtained in comparisons between turf treated with the corn-based product and with urea or ammonium sulfate. Marketed as NaturStim, the product is manufactured by Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) at its Decatur, Ill., corn and soybean processing plant.

Dr. Tom Fermanian cites similar results found in synthetic fertilized plots and corn-based product fertilized plots.

“The studies were designed to evaluate the performance and safety of new fertilizer sources from ADM.” Fermanian said. “We found that urea and the corn-based fertilizers work equally well.” While the studies included both liquid and granular forms of lysine, the final product of NaturStim is in a granular form.

Research findings

Studies were conducted at the U of I Ornamental Horticulture Research Facility in 2006 and 2007. The 2007 studies included both greens heights of creeping bentgrass and lawn heights of Kentucky bluegrass. Controls included plots that were unfertilized and plots on which ammonium sulfate and a composted natural product consisting chiefly of turkey manure were applied.

The greens height study received nine applications on a weekly basis through June and biweekly in July. The lawn height study received two applications made at the start of the study in late April and in late May.

Each study was laid out with three 5-by-6-foot replications for statistical analysis. The composted product and the lysine product were applied as granular materials on a whole-plot basis. Appropriate amounts of the granular materials were added to shaker jars with uniform distribution across a single plot. Other materials were applied on a liquid basis by mixing the appropriate amount of material in approximately 1 gallon of water with distribution across a single plot by a standard garden watering can.

Fermanian noted that there appeared to be slightly less potential for injury to the turf in the granular applications than with the liquid. The spray exhibited minor injury, which Fermanian said is common with all sprays.

Increasing interest in organic products

Dr. Bill Torello, an expert in organic fertilizer technology noted, “Professional, as well as private users are understanding that there is much more to organic fertilizers than just being environmentally friendly.” Torello was an ADM consultant in the development of NutriStim.

Greens height plot was fertilized with composted natural product.

According to Torello, organic materials increase soil biological activities and soil structure. These responses lead to healthier plants that require less fungicide and fewer overall inputs. He noted that organic fertilizers normally have low nitrogen levels requiring higher volumes of material in applications to achieve results similar to synthetic fertilizers.

Torello said, “There is a lot of controversy over the term ‘natural.’ If a material is made up of material that was once living, it can be termed organic. Interest in natural products has been strongly increasing in the past decade, and particularly so in the past two or three years.”

Organic products work primarily by releasing mineral nutrients for plants, as well as the microbes. Inorganic synthetic fertilizers are usually water soluble and do not rely on microbes to release nutrients. Inorganic synthetic fertilizers work immediately while organics take time since microbes must work on them. The slower release over time means that nutrients are available for a longer period of time.

Organics have been used most extensively in the Northeast, Southeast, Pacific Northwest and California. Although the use of organic products has steadily increased in those regions, their use has not made a significant impact on synthetic fertilizers. One of the reasons is that the cost of organic fertilizers continues to be higher than the cost of synthetic fertilizers.

A number of sources have been used to develop organic products including slaughterhouse waste, turkey and chicken litter, fish processing waste and seaweed. Grain, cotton meal and food waste are all potential sources. Organic pest and weed control products have been developed, but Torello said that the products have provided limited control and have proved costly.

Lawn height plot fertilized with synthetic fertilizer. Lawn height plot fertilized with corn-based fertilizer.

While interest is increasing, Torello noted that a number of drawbacks exist to using organic materials. Organics carry a higher cost, usually much more than inorganic fertilizers, and organic products contain low nitrogen levels.

“Except for the ADM materials, the highest levels of nitrogen have been about 10 to 12 percent with the vast majority having levels between 2 and 8 percent,” he said. “Nitrogen is the primary nutrient of all fertilizers. Lower levels mean higher volumes of material must be used to achieve similar results. The ADM material contains 15 percent nitrogen.”

This greens height plot was fertilized with urea in 2006 and ammonium sulfate in 2007. A greens height plot fertilized with corn-based fertilizer now marketed as NaturStim.

Corn-based fertilizer development

The corn-based product begins with the same row crop corn production used for most corn products. Harvested corn is delivered to the processing plant where the corn is received at a site referred to as the grain dump. The wet milling process then begins.

Wet milling is one of three primary forms of corn processing that also includes dry milling, which is grinding corn to produce such products as cornmeal or corn flour. Alkali processing is done by cooking and steeping corn in a lime solution to produce products such as tortillas, corn chips and taco shells.

Wet milling involves steeping corn kernels in a sulfur dioxide and water solution through large, stainless steel tanks. The diffusion of sulfur dioxide into the endosperm during steeping releases starch from the protein matrix. The steep water is evaporated and used in biochemical fermentations or is added to gluten feed.

The wet milling process has been important to the corn industry of the Midwest. While much of the corn grown throughout the Midwest is exported, a major portion has been processed into food-grade oils, starch products and sweeteners, and, in recent years, ethanol production has become a major product in the corn industry.

Semi-trucks line up to deliver corn to the ADM grain dump for wet milling processing.

Bob Pflaum said, “Lysine is derived from a corn feed stock D-glucose referred to as dextrose in the food industry.” Pflaum is ADM general manager for natural environmental products. He said, “In response to a growing demand for safer fertilizers, ADM developed the new fertilizer over the past two years.”

Pflaum cited the higher nitrogen content of the corn-based product over other organic products that provide results similar to most synthetic fertilizers. “NaturStim offers golf course and professional turf managers a safer alternative to synthetic fertilizers,” he said.  

“Our concept is that NaturStim will be an umbrella as we develop a unique line of products containing organic fertilizers and soil amendments for the green industry,” Pflaum said. “We are continuing to evaluate internal materials and combinations of ingredients within our operations which have the potential to incorporate in the green industry. Our plans are to eventually make NaturStim available for residential, commercial and professional turf applications.”

ADM appears to be the only processor that has developed such a product. Distillers’ dried grains, leftover product from corn converted into ethanol, has been developed to a limited degree as turf products, but few, if any, are available commercially.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Turf. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.