• Bert Quin

Quinfacts - RPR Series (8)

8. The time has come for New Zealand to completely stop making superphosphate

The National Series of RPR vs superphosphate trials, ran for 3 to 7 years in the 1980s on 19 sites throughout New Zealand. The sites were deliberately chosen to have below-maintenance levels of soil Olsen P. This was done to make it easier to assess if RPR performed better or worse than superphosphate. There were tiny differences (typically 1-3%) on some sites in the first 1-3 years.

Where soil P levels are at or above maintenance (as is the case on 98% of dairy farms), no differences occur. Where soil pH is 5.6 or below, as occurs on over 80% of hill country, no differences occurred, regardless of the Olsen P.

The only situation where RPR had not fully caught up with super by year 4 was a non-irrigated, over-limed (pH 6.4) site with a very low Olsen P in dryland Canterbury (average annual rainfall 750 mm).

In any situation where a small difference in production may occur initially (called the ‘lag-effect’) there is a very simple, proven solution. This is, to use a mixture of RPR and a soluble form of P such as triple super, DAP or MAP, in a ratio that gives 30% of the total P in quick-release form, for the first few years.

So OK, it’s proven that RPR-based alternatives are just as effective. But why should we change from using super? There are a number of important reasons. I will just deal with some of the most important here.

Perhaps the very most important is the fact that fertiliser P losses in surface run-off after rainfall are far greater with super; there is virtually none with RPR. This P run-off loss is the prime cause of eutrophication of waterways and lakes. Some people who should know better have said things like ‘there’s no point; you still get what is called particulate P losses regardless of what fertiliser you are using’. But particulate P is largely soluble P that has become ‘adsorbed’ on soil particles. Using RPR long term, production can be maintained with much lower levels of ‘adsorbed’ P. The RPR stays present as RPR particles that slowly get dissolved by soil acid and used by the plant. These particles are far, far denser than superphosphate and therefore much less prone to being lost in run-off. Short-term trials on land that has a history of superphosphate use cannot be expected to show this effect. But not a cent of the tens of millions of taxpayers money that goes to the superphosphate industry for ‘research’ via so-called ‘Public Good’ funding gets spent on this. No prizes for guessing why.

Then there is leaching. Up until 15 years ago, most NZ researchers dismissed the idea of P being leached through soils. We now know that enormous quantities of P applied as superphosphate (up to 40% of it) can be leached right through  the very low P-retention soils of Northland and the West Coast, and that significant P leaching occurs on all soils with P retention values below 45%; in other words about half of New Zealand. RPR by contrast does not leach.

And then there is the fixed amount of sulphur (S), present as sulphate-S, in superphosphate. Super normally contains about 9% P and 12% S if correctly made (ie fully acidulated). This an S:P ratio of 1.3 to one, almost double the 0.7 to one S:P ratio that pasture actually needs. The excess sulphate-S gets leached from the soil, taking with it (for electrical charge reasons) a mixture of the cations calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. These losses all have to be replaced over time to maintain production, representing on an annual basis a totally unnecessary cost of about $30/ha annually. Under high rainfall, almost all the sulphate is leached (taking even more cations with it), so the farmer has to use super that is fortified with elemental S, a form of S which doesn’t leach. All of this expensive, completely avoidable nonsense could be avoided by adding the precise amount of fine elemental S to RPR for each farm. No wastage, less cost, less leaching of cations.

And what about storage and manufacturing costs? RPR has a much higher P content than super (12.7% P for Algerian RPR) compared to 9% P (probably a maximum 8% P available).  Combined with the much higher bulk density of RPR (1.65 compared to 1.1 for super),  that means a given amount of P (or P plus S) as RPR or RPR/S requires only 40-45% as much storage size as does super. Only 65% as many tonnes need to be transported and spread, greatly reducing costs to the farmer.

Then there is the liming value of RPR. Every tonne of Algerian RPR applied has the liming action of 580 kg/ha of pure lime. This is offset by the elemental S added, which produces acidity as it is converted to sulphate-S by soil bacteria, but RPR/S containing the agronomically correct S:P ratio of 0.7 to 1 still has a liming value of 300 kg/ha. Therefore RPR/S being applied at say 275 kg/ha is providing, for free, about 85 kg/ha of pure lime effect. Most soils in NZ need 150-250 kg/ha lime expressed on an annual basis, but about half of this is a function of sulphate leaching from super. Put simply, farms using RPR/S will only need half the amount of lime to maintain a given soil pH than where super is being used. And the full liming effect of RPR of gypsum (calcium sulphate) is used as the source of sulphur instead of elemental S. The important thing is to only use the amount of sulphur that is needed.

Superphosphate did a good job helping to develop the productivity of New Zealand’s soils, but put quite simply, it is way, way past its use-by date.