SUPERU™ Research Findings

The research findings reported here were obtained from a literature review performed by Alison Eagle of Duke University (Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions) in February 2016 under contract to the Environmental Defense Fund.

Product Description and Mode of Action

SUPERU™ is a self-contained granular fertilizer also intended to reduce ammonia volatilization and prevent nitrification, thus avoiding losses of ammonia to the air and nitrate to groundwater. It was available for on-farm use by the late 1990s and is made from a base of urea. It includes both NBPT and DCD, as does AGROTAIN® PLUS.

NBPT ((N-(n-butyl) thiophosphoric triamide) is a urease inhibitor. Dicyandiamide (DCD) is a nitrification inhibitor.

Urease inhibitors reduce the speed of conversion from urea in fertilizer to ammonium (enzymatic hydrolysis), which can then either rapidly convert to gaseous ammonia and be lost to the air or convert to nitrate (NO3-) and be subject to leaching losses. By staying longer in the urea form, the fertilizer can more slowly become available to plants, increasing the chance of being there when needed by the crop.

Nitrification inhibitors can increase nitrogen efficiency by depressing the activities of the Nitrosomonas bacteria over a period of time, therefore delaying the bacterial oxidation of the ammonium-ion (NH4+) into nitrite (NO2-), which is then transformed into nitrate (NO3-) by Nitrobacter and Nitrosolobus bacteria.

AGROTAIN®, AGROTAIN® PLUS, and SUPERU™ are related products manufactured and marketed by Koch Agronomic Services. All three products are sold to agricultural producers with the claim that they will improve nitrogen use efficiency and thus improve productivity. The expectation is that when N is limiting, effective urease and nitrification inhibitors will improve crop yield.


Summary of Lab and Field Experiments

With the laboratory and other early work on these active ingredients already conducted for AGROTAIN® PLUS, early SUPERU™ research appears to be focused on field trials. The earliest field studies on corn in Kentucky took place in 1997 and 1998, reporting improved yields with the product (Wells 1999). Corn yield benefits (12-yr average) from both AGROTAIN® PLUS and SUPERU™ in Illionois depended on moisture conditions and whether or not fertilizer was incorporated (Ebelhar et al. 2007). The earliest peer-reviewed research results for SUPERU™ are field trials on corn that tested N2O emissions with different fertilizer sources and tillage treatments (Halvorson et al. 2010a; Halvorson et al. 2010b). These studies found both SUPERU™ and AGROTAIN® PLUS reduced N2O emissions significantly, when compared with urea and UAN.

Product Efficacy in the Field

A search of the scientific literature and grey literature (conference proceedings etc.) was conducted to locate data on crop yield responses for SUPERU™. Data were incorporated into an existing database on fertilizer management field trials, including all available management, climate, soil, N loss, and crop productivity information.

The following tables summarize the yield impacts of SUPERU™ with discussion below each table. Weighted averages are calculated where possible, with results from each study weighted by the inverse of the number of trials in each location. This prevents studies from very well-studied locations from overwhelming the average results.

Overall effect sizes are reported for all studies, and also restricted to peer-reviewed data and non-generic products, as applicable.

For wheat, there is no significant yield response to SUPERU™, for both the full dataset and when restricting to only peer-reviewed studies. Even without a yield response in these data, losses may be reduced, however, as Gao et al. (2015) observed an average reduction in yield-scaled N2O emissions of 33% (±28%). Because this is only for one location and a small number of observations, further study is needed to confirm the results, but it does agree with research in corn and other crops, and may be promising from an environmental stewardship perspective.

Out of 13 corn field studies, 3 experienced increased yield from using SUPERU™ instead of urea, 2 showed decreased yield, and 8 had no statistically significant effect. Overall, however, when compared to urea, the SUPERU™ resulted in an average yield increase between 2.3 and 11.3 bushels of corn per acre, or 1.9 to 7.7%. Including only the peer-reviewed data dampens that result, as there are only hints of positive yield benefits. Thus, more data may be useful. Even more important for environmental stewardship than yield, however, are the reported reductions in N2O emissions, as many of these studies also measured N2O emissions (32 observations). Yield-scaled N2O emissions were reduced by 22.1% (±10.6%) when replacing urea with SUPERU™.

Because SUPERU™ is a urea-based fertilizer, most studies have compared this product with urea. But what if the typical fertilizer in a region is something else, and farmers are considering alternatives? All SUPERU™ observations in the table above comparing with UAN were separate experiments from those comparing with urea. Compared with urea, there seems to be a greater yield benefit to replacing UAN with SUPERU™, but this may be affected by both the inhibitors and the fertilizer formulation (urea versus UAN) itself. Again, when restricting to peer-reviewed studies only, the estimated effect is lower. For the studies that reported N2O emissions (10 observations), yield-scaled N2O losses for SUPERU™ may be lower than for UAN, with an average decrease of 2.9% (± 3.7), again not significantly different, but this is likely due to the small number of observations.

Summary of Evidence

When looking at yield effects only and keeping fertilizer rates constant, positive yield impacts for corn are evident for AGROTAIN® and SUPERU™, but the evidence is less compelling for AGROTAIN® PLUS. Limiting the analyses to peer-reviewed data reduces the effect size (in almost all cases) and reduces the statistical significance of positive impacts (primarily because of fewer observations). Overall, yield benefits for wheat from AGROTAIN® seem to be more an effect of reduced seedling damage by fertilizer than any reduced losses. Thus, the benefits were affected by fertilizer placement. There is no overall wheat yield response to SUPERU™. Perhaps this is a function of the overall lower N requirements for wheat compared to corn. Beneficial impacts of products containing NBPT and DCD were further modified by climate. For example, adding AGROTAIN® to urea was especially effective in dry conditions, when ammonia losses would be significant.

However, yield impact of a product without changing N fertilizer rate may not be the optimal measure of whether or not these products positively affect nitrogen efficiency. Perhaps studies with multiple rates would find similar yields from these products even with less overall N applied. Such results would be expected when a product improves N use efficiency. Many of the experiments from which data are currently available are not in systems where N is limiting the crop productivity, so the product may not have had opportunity to demonstrate its potential.

Further, environmental benefits may be achieved even without economic or production gains if damaging forms of N losses are reduced. The measured 22% lower yield-scaled N2O emissions from SUPERU™ compared with urea in corn systems represent significant improvements. A similar trend also seems possible for AGROTAIN® PLUS and SUPERU™ replacing UAN in corn systems. Therefore, while more data would of course be useful, these products do show some evidence of improving crop yield and reducing negative environmental impacts related to N losses.


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