Cereal grains: efficient fertilization benefits the crops, the environment and the farmer

Throughout history, cereal grain farming in Italy involved a large part of the agricultural area destined for arable land, from the North to the South, relying on different crops and supply chains, distinguished first and foremost by the intended use of the product (human nutrition or animal husbandry). If wheat (durum and soft), corn, barley and rice make the lion’s share in terms of areas invested in cereal grains, the equally noteworthy crops in Italy are oats and sorghum, while other cereal grains such as triticale and rye are grown in much smaller areas.

Even though it has always been an important part of the primary sector, the cultivation of cereal grains in Italy has undergone some important transformations in the last decade, the result of technical evolutions and changing market dynamics.

Cereal grain farming in Italy

The Istat Report dated April 2021, which takes into account the decade from 2010-2019, indicates that over the period of time considered, the areas invested in cereals in Italy decreased by almost 15%, going from 3,619,477 hectares in 2010 to 3,086,163 in 2019. Simultaneously, the percentage weight of cereals in the total arable land area also decreased during the same period, from 51.9% to 45.9%. Northern Italy was especially affected by a cereal farming contraction during the decade in question, while the Central and Southern areas experienced a less pronounced decline.

The same Report, subsequently taking into account the data for the 2020-2021 year, indicates Puglia and Piedmont as the two Italian regions with the highest surface area invested in cereals, with Puglia mainly involved in the cultivation of durum wheat and Piedmont instead in that of corn and rice; the latter region representing 50% of the total national surface allocated to this cereal.

Compared to the planting season of 2010, in 2020 we saw a sharp drop of corn in Italy and an equally significant increase of wheat, especially with durum but to a certain extent with soft also. The reasons for these new balances are mainly correlated to the prices recognized to farmers (increasing for wheat, due to the favourable balance between supply and demand, and decreasing for corn), but also to the gap in production costs, which are higher in the case of corn due to greater defense needs.

If the aforementioned Istat Report reveals that the pandemic did not have significant effects on the profitability of Italian cereal farming companies, on the other hand, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine (underway for two weeks at the time when this article was written), both global key players in the cereal sector, may lead to new planting balances in 2022, in our country as well as in other EU nations.

Growing techniques for quality cereals

Although mono-succession is widespread in specific cereal farming contexts characterized by high specialization (rice cultivation, given the high cost of land arrangement, and corn cultivation, due to the link with animal husbandry), cereals benefit from crop rotation when they precede or follow weeded crops – such as tomatoes, grain legumes and beets – or forage legumes. Of course, there may be rotations between cereals as different as barley — wheat or wheat — corn.

Even with extremely marked differences between crops, depending on the intended use of the product, the seasonality (fall/winter cereals and spring/summer cereals) and soil and weather conditions, the cultivation of cereals requires particular attention both during the start-up phase of the crop (preparation of the soil and of the seedbed, bottom fertilization), as well as during the covering; in this case we are especially referring to the management of weeds, the defense against pathogens and insects, the prevention of abiotic stresses such as water stress (from stagnation and drought, depending on the case), through careful soil and irrigation management and finally, once again, fertilization.

Fertilizing cereals: the role of the various nutrients

Given that for each cereal the total amount of each nutrient that needs to be distributed throughout the season varies according to the expected/desired yield, certain general considerations can be drawn on the role of the various nutrients and the periods of distribution.

Nitrogen stimulates the growth of the plant and improves the quality of the grain. A deficiency leads to stunted development and chlorotic pigmentation of the leaves, while an excess causes lodging. The distribution of nitrogen must usually be divided into two to three interventions, which may include both quick-release or controlled-release granular fertilizers, to be distributed in the ground (preferably in localized distribution) as well as with foliar fertilizers (with covered), in both cases mineral or organo-mineral. Particular attention must be paid to the rate of absorption of the plant, to avoid nitrogen dispersion in the soil and run-off in ground waters, especially of nitrates.

Phosphorus also positively influences the growth of the plant, with greater need for it during the early stages of development, and its deficiency may cause stunted development and anthocyanin pigmentation of the leaves. It is well-known that phosphorus is characterized by poor mobility in the soil, with the problem increasing with acidic pH (retrogradation and formation of iron phosphate precipitates and Aluminium) and alkaline pH (insolubility due to tricalcium phosphate formation). This evidence renders localized distribution more desirable during pre-seeding.

Potassium stimulates photosynthesis and the deposition of photosynthates in the grain, as well as providing resistance to cold and drought, optimizing the use of available water. It also makes the plant more resistant to pathogen attacks and lodging, improving cell structure. Potassium deficiency can lead to altered leaf coloration and desiccation of the leaf apices. Potassium is usually present in sufficient quantities in land intended for cereal farming, but in the event of deficiency, this element is entirely brought in with bottom fertilization .

The role of Magnesium in cereal farming should also not be underestimated, since it is essential for promoting good photosynthetic activity, which is positively reflected in the weight of thousands of seeds. As well as Sulphur, which positively influences nitrogenous nutrition and at the same time promotes a balanced protein composition of the grain.

Agribios Recommends

AGRIAZOTO 300 is a high titre nitrogen organo-mineral fertilizer, with sulphur. The specific composition of the organic substance and the three forms of nitrogen contained provide a prompt and gradual release of nitrogen The organic substance contained favours the maintenance of soil fertility and ensures that the nitrogen is protected from negative phenomena such as evaporation and washout. Meanwhile, the high sulphur content favours the absorption of nitrogen and micro-elements contained in the soil and improves the organoleptic properties of the crops.

SUPERORO contains nitrogen and phosphorus, which cannot be used directly by plants due to their bond to protein molecules, but are made available gradually and at a synced pace with the nutritional needs of crops. They are not leached and insolubilized in the soil, like when they are found in mineral fertilizers, and promote exceptional biological activity. The primary nutritional needs of the crops require amino acids, then peptides and finally proteins. The same considerations apply to phosphorus. The protein materials contained in SUPERORO are the only nitrogenous food that can be used by heterophilic microorganisms, whose activity is also reflected in the solubilization of bone phosphates contained in the product.

BIODIECI is an organic nitrogen fertilizer obtained through cold-pressed pellets made from a mixture of four different sources of partially hydrolyzed animal protein. The size of the natural organic molecules that contain nitrogen allows for a gradual release, with long-lasting availability for the plant over time. Specifically designed for organic farming but also successfully used in conventional agriculture, BIODIECI is used on all herbaceous or tree crops that require a nitrogen supply. It is also the ideal substrate for improving soil microbial activity.

MICROTECH POWER is a liquid organic fertilizer, containing bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi (Trichoderma harzianum, Trichoderma viride, Azospirills, Azotobacter and Pseudomonas, in addition to other microorganisms), to be used during the cultivation phases of all herbaceous and tree crops. It provides nitrogen, organic carbon, enzymes, sugars, Left-handed amino acids, peptones, mycorrhizae and rhizosphere bacteria useful for plants (PGPR, nitrogen fixers, etc.). Made with an exclusive enzymatic hydrolysis process, MICROTECH POWER bio-stimulates plants by facilitating the absorption of the nutrients provided, creating a protective barrier around the roots and strengthening the plant’s defenses against biotic and abiotic stress.

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