Willoway Nursery Tests System For Precision Nutrient Control

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Figure 1: The Controlled Nutrient Delivery MicroFeed System provides precision nutrient recipes to a nursery site of 210 acres.

This last article in the Water Wisely series presents a case study using previously presented concepts in our series on nutrient management and water delivery systems. These concepts allow growers to precisely manage nutrient supply to plants, which improves plant health and reduces fertilizer inputs.

Taking the 4R (right source, right rate, right time, right place) principal into account, I developed the Controlled Nutrient Delivery MicroFeed System (CNDMS), which is leading to advancements in water and nutrient management practices. This system was designed to meet all of the plant’s requirements with accurate control over each input. This revolutionary approach to precise plant nutrition is the result of collaboration between innovative scientific research and progressive technology, formulating the most accurate system available in the nursery, vegetable and floriculture industries.

Generally speaking, the key characteristics for generating successful nursery and floriculture crops are proper plant nutrition and appropriate irrigation to meet plant needs. The advanced CNDMS combines these two essential aspects in an integrated nutrient distribution system that exceeds traditional approaches and transforms plant nutrition in growing practices for high-intensity agriculture.

Willoway Nursery Implements Integrated Nutrition System

The CNDMS was first implemented on a large scale at Willoway Nursery in Ohio, when Owner Tom Demaline approved and funded the installation of the system in 2008 (Figure 1). The increase in plant quality and reduction in growing time encouraged the team at Willoway to install additional CNDMS units throughout the nursery. As an integral part of his scientific growing system, another unit — the Acid Control Remediation System (ACRS) (Figure 2) — was developed to maximize control of pH. This system was also incorporated throughout the nursery in strategic locations. At Willoway, the CNDMS now manages nutrient delivery for more than 1,000 acres of superior-quality nursery crops with effectiveness and efficiency above current
industry standards.

The System And Water Recovery Methods

Today, agriculture industries are under continued pressure to develop more efficient water management practices in order to protect this vital resource and the environment. As growing conditions and management practices vary, plant nutrient and water management methods must be adaptable to improve plant development and minimize waste. The CNDMS is functional for a range of water supply sources, from stormwater runoff recovery to ground, surface or municipal water supplies, and it can be used in a variety of high-intensity crop operations.

In an effort to improve water and nutrient expenditure, Willoway Nursery incorporated the CNDMS into their unique infrastructure for irrigation applications. Stormwater runoff is collected throughout the Willoway Nursery facility and stored in water containment ponds, pioneering a recycled irrigation water and nutrient management system that optimally utilizes all input resources with improved cost effectiveness. Recycling nutrients and water in this closed system establishes sustainable growing practices with diminished dependence on external inputs. All runoff and irrigation water is retained within the facility to be recycled and used in future applications. Nutrients leached from container pots contribute to irrigation effluent and add essential plant nutrients to the impoundment ponds, thus reducing costs.

Stable Nutrient Availability Is A Key Objective

In order to generate high-quality irrigation water, consideration must be given to the algae growth in the containment ponds and its influence on the fluctuation of pH values. The CNDMS simplifies and adjusts the pH control by incorporating nitric and phosphoric acid injection into irrigation water. Not only are these elemental acids used as a management tool for real-time adjustment of pH values, but they also provide essential nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorus — to the plants for continuous, stable, nutrient availability. This results in improved plant development.

At Willoway, plant essential nutrient rates are calculated and applied in response to plant requirements. These requirements are determined through laboratory analysis of samples of plant leachate collected by employing the Pour Thru method (Figure 3). Periodic leachate measurements determine the necessary nutrients and quantities required for optimal plant growth and indicate any possible excess. Plant nutrient demands fluctuate throughout the growing season due to environmental shifts, particularly light deviations, at the specific plant development phase.

The CNDMS integrates all aspects of plant nutrition, formulating superior fertilization techniques in which nutrient rates are more precisely matched to the rate of plant metabolic uptake. This system allows for immediate and individual nutrient changes, and thus can be tailored to all plant production specifications. Precise and accurate essential plant nutrient delivery is achieved by managing individual micronutrient application rates and quantities that are incorporated into the irrigation water.

Optimizing nutrient application requires a systems approach that considers plant needs and environmental interactions that can affect nutrient availability in the production of high-intensity crops. The CNDMS has
perfected the fundamental aspects of plant nutrition based on expert knowledge and successful field work.

Integrated Technology Reduces Waste, Optimizes Nutrients

The innovative technology integrated in the CNDMS combines a mechanical tool used for the precise measurement and delivery of nutrient prescriptions with different growing environments (greenhouse and/or field conditions). As a result, the plant quality and yield are continuously enhanced (Figure 5).
Implementation of this system in high-intensity agriculture such as horticulture, floriculture and nursery crops enables the improved management of water and nutrients. This minimizes the need for supplementary inputs and reducing waste. In addition, the precise input controls allow for immediate intervention by the grower, maximizing success.
The CNDMS is the new model for superior plant nutrition management. This versatile system can balance plant metabolic needs with matched nutrient inputs and existing resources through an innovative methodology that has
exceeded traditional fertilization approaches and is establishing new levels of excellence in high-intensity agriculture production.

Bill Bauerle Ph.D. (bauerle.1@osu.edu) is a Professor Emeritus at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.
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