Tropical agriculture, like that in Malaysia, faces its own challenges. Many tropical countries are developing countries that depend on agriculture to drive their economies. This is why increasing and optimizing fertilizer efficiency is paramount.
If you have a plantation here, these are the main issues you may face while using fertilizers and how to overcome them:
It is the usual practice for many plantations is to apply their fertilizers by spreading them on the ground. This method, although it looks pretty simple on the surface, actually poses some challenges. For starters, it requires a lot of manpower to manually spread the dry fertilizers all over the plantation. Secondly, this method exposes the fertilizers to rain, which causes fertilizer runoff, whereby most of the nutrients are washed away by the rain or leaches through the ground.
How to overcome this: FELDA has worked on a solution to this problem, using a method called the Mulch method for mature palms. This method uses a tarp to cover the area around the palm after fertilizer application. This minimizes fertilizer runoff and increases efficiency since fertilizers only have to be applied once a year. You can find out more about the Mulch method at (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Zcw7g-CBhk)
2. Changing Fertilizer Prices
The prices of fertilizers can often be a challenge and are very much influenced by volatile market factors such as demand and supply. Availability of raw materials also influences prices to some degree. Fertilizer costs can become a burden to plantations during periods where there’s a sharp rise. However, a plantation cannot go without fertilizers for long. Research has shown that the productivity of an oil palm plantation starts to decline sharply one to two years after fertilizers have been stopped.
How to overcome this: Complete withdrawal of fertilizers should be the last resort. In the meantime, you can reduce your fertilizers and target usage. Withdrawal should be done only on the nutrients with least impact on FFB. You can also withdraw your fertilizers from the soil types, climatic zones and palm ages that are the healthiest and the most stable. However, this withdrawal should not be for long.
3. Environmentally Sustainable Fertilizers
With the global market for palm oil becoming more environmentally conscious, oil palm plantations have to become environmentally conscious too. This means taking steps to make sure that all agricultural practices on the plantation are sustainable. This term ‘sustainability’ means practices that are not harmful to the environment and can be carried out for years and years to come with no major negative impacts. The challenge for plantation owners is to make sure that the fertilization practices are sustainable too.
The main problem with agrochemical fertilizers is the presence of Nitrogen. According to research, 20-80% of the nitrogen in fertilizers is lost due to volatilization and runoff. Nitrogen runoff is especially harmful to the environment as it causes eutrophication, where algae overgrow in a body of water and kill all life living there due to lack of sunlight.
How to overcome this: There are many types of newer fertilizers that treat their nitrogen to make it less volatile and sensitive to leaching. Alternatively, you can also consider controlled release fertilizers that are less likely to pollute the environment due to runoff.