zwitterionWhat does this word have to do with agriculture?

For an old farmer like me, this sounds like a foreign language. Being an old farmer isn’t always bad. I have taken many things apart just to see how it works. That is what compelled me to sneak up on this word and do some investigation.

A zwitterion is a hybrid

That’s a word we farmers understand. Now we know it can’t be all bad. If it is a hybrid it must be a mixture of something and that is true. A zwitterion is an ion that carries both a positive and negative charge. Make a mental note of the last statement because this is the most unusual thing about a zwitterion.

We at International Ag Labs have always stressed the importance of putting a mixture of different products together in our nitrogen solutions to stabilize them. This has been very successful for our producers that do not farm organically. We have been able to lower our nitrogen requirements for corn from 1.2 lbs per bushel to .6 to .7 lbs per bushel. The products in this nitrogen mixture have always been dictated to us by the results of a soil test. It also determines the ratios of products in the mixture. Our goal in making this mixture was always to end up with a simple amino acid solution.


Animal manure has been used for fertilizer longer than the products bought from the fertilizer plant. You can buy the best fertilizer program there is and by adding manure to it will make it better. I live in an area that has a rather dense animal population. Mixed in with the livestock producers are some grain producers that have no livestock. The livestock producers always have the best crops. The grain farmers are eager to take any excess manure from the livestock producers.

I learned the importance of using manure the hard way. The year was 1979 and I had five different farms. One farm turned into a disaster in one crop year. The yield on that farm was about 40% less than my other farms. This continued until 1982.that was the year I started to use the Dr. Carey Reams system on this farm. During the time between "79"& "82" as I was standing in a bean field, I noticed a semi-circle in the soybeans. After some thought about this, I realized that I was looking at the area where the previous owner had turned his manure spreader around 35 years ago. That was when I decided there had to be more to manure than just N-P-K. The thing I didn’t realize until this past year was this, Depending upon the species of animal, manure is about 50% amino acids. Manure also has many different species of bacteria and fungi. The bacteria will convert to amino acids when they complete their life cycle.

organic productionAmino acids

Certified organic production uses amino acids almost completely as a nitrogen source. Other than the use of herbicides, amino acids are the biggest difference between traditional production and organic production. I cannot think of a nitrogen source that is certified for organic production that is not an amino acid. Green manure crops that are mixed into the soil are amino acids.

Compost is a classic example of an amino acid type fertilizer. Compost brings much more than just amino acids, it has many other elements that will be readily available such as phosphorus, potassium, as well as most of the trace minerals. It also has a large amount of bacteria and fungi ready to go to work in the soil. The last but by far not the least is active organic matter.

Products like liquid fish, seaweed extract, kelp meal, whey products, and bat guano all have amino acids in them. All naturally grown products that have any protein in them have amino acids. The definition of amino acids is "a group of nitrogenous organic compounds that serve as units of structure of the proteins and are essential to support metabolism in humans or animals."

Now we know a group of amino acids make up protein. If we look at it in the laboratory it becomes more simple. All we need to know about a product is two things. We need to know the nitrogen content or the protein content. If we have a bag of soybean meal and the protein content on the bag says 48%, we can determine the nitrogen content by dividing that number by 6.25. 48% divided by 6.25 = 7.68% nitrogen. This works by knowing the nitrogen content also. 7.68 multiplied by 6.25 is 48%. Does this mean we can determine the protein content of ammonium nitrate by taking 33% multiplied by 6.25? No! Ammonium nitrate is not organic; therefore the nitrogen is not made up by amino acids. Ammonium nitrate is just the nitrogen element made up of two forms of nitrogen, namely ammonia and nitrate.

Amino acids are zwitterions

So why did I start out writing about zwitterions and most of my newsletter is about amino acids? Amino acids are zwitterions.

The fact that zwitterions have both a positive and negative charge is extremely important. This means any nitrogen that is made up from amino acids can attach to the clay colloids in the soil. Amino acid type nitrogen is not easy to move. The soil colloids carry a negative charge so the positive side of a zwitterion will attach to the colloid. In contrast, nitrate nitrogen is negatively charged so it is repelled from the colloid. This results in free nitrogen that is not stable. This is why making an amino acid solution is so important.

Benefits of using amino acids in your fertility program

In summary what are the benefits of using amino acids in your fertility program? Fertilizers made up of zwitterions will not pollute the environment as readily as the basic nitrogen element. A smaller amount of nitrogen per acre can accomplish the same yield using zwitterion-type fertilizer. It is much better for the organic matter portion of your soil. Nitrogen sources such as anhydrous ammonia will actually liquefy organic matter therefore organic matter is decreased over time. Depending upon what is used to make up the rest of the program you should see an increase in microbial activity using zwitterion-based fertility.

Crop and forage production using naturally produced zwitterions is good science. If anyone tells you that the nitrogen in urea is the same as nitrogen in any naturally occurring amino acid type product he is mistaken. Remember the more amino acids there are in a substance, the less it will take and the longer it will stay around.

Good farming and God bless,

Wendell Owens

Wendell Owens

of International Ag Labs

Wendell Owen

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