Enhancing True Protein Content

February 27, 2023

Protein content is an important number for many farmers and nutritionists. We want higher protein forages, higher protein wheat, etc.

Higher protein matters from more than one perspective. Farmers obviously care about protein content of their forages because of energy and milk production benefits. But in reality, it goes much deeper than that. This matters to more than dairy farmers. Do we care about protein content of the vegetables we produce or eat?  Do we care about the benefits of true protein content in the field? Do we care about natural resistance to pests and diseases?

In the case of forages, it is important to recognize that the protein number is not an actual protein number, which is why it is called crude protein. Instead of measuring protein, they just test nitrogen and do their calculation which is how they come up with crude protein number.

While it is true that all protein is 6.25% nitrogen, it is not true that all nitrogen is protein. Why is this important to point out? Because anyone can put nitrogen onto their crop and increase the crude protein number, only it won’t necessarily increase the true protein number. It can, if done correctly, but it won’t necessarily without the correct balance of other minerals.

I used forage and crude protein as an example before we get into the nuts and bolts. The reality is that the same holds true for any crop, whether tested or not. When nitrogen is applied to a crop in the form of nitrate, it will increase the crude protein number, but not necessarily the true protein number. This is because there is much more to a protein than just nitrogen.

An over-simplistic explanation of how this works: When plants produce proteins, they start with plant sugars that are produced through the photosynthesis process, combine it with nitrogen, and then we have amino acids. Through multiple chemical reactions within the plant set to action by sulfur, molybdenum, and magnesium, these amino acids are now converted into complete proteins.

So what we are really saying is that in order to have high protein content, we need plants that have high brix content, and nitrogen is important for that. But we also need the other photosynthesis minerals like iron, manganese, phosphorus, calcium, and then also the minerals needed for optimal protein synthesis, which include the magnesium, sulfur, and molybdenum (in PhotoMag) which were already mentioned.

All farmers should care about true protein content, because it has a big impact on insect resistance. We commonly hear that when farmers apply nitrate nitrogen to their crops, they see a flush of insect pressure which they then need to spray an insecticide for. This is preventable if you understand plant nutrition. Insects and worms such as aphids, whiteflies, leafhoppers, corn ear worm, lantern flies, etc. have simple digestive systems that cannot handle complete proteins. They can only handle incomplete proteins.

So yes, nitrogen is important, in fact very important, but we dare not stop there if we want exceptionally healthy crops that have high feeding value and insect resistance. We need to balance nutrition like nature intended and that means speeding up biology and ensuring that plants have adequate levels of all minerals, not just N-P-K.

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Source: Melvin Fisher | Sponsored by Keystone Bio-Ag LLC