Weed out too-good-to-be-true products

The term “snake oil” originates in China, where merchants still sell a medicine used to treat joint pain. Originally, the oil was made from the Chinese water snake.

Today, the term is primarily used to describe a product that does not work as advertised. Over the years, farmers have been bombarded with advertising for products that claim to be the next big thing in boosting corn yields. University of Illinois’ Emerson Nafziger doesn’t refer to them as “snake oil.” Instead, his puts such products under the umbrella “stuff we add to ‘help’ corn.”

Key Points

• If a product seems too good to be true, it usually is.

• Most are not backed by neutral research.

• U of I research indicates they provide no benefit.


Based on his research, Nafziger says while these products may work in a greenhouse, they often fail to provide a positive return in the field.

“What is it about a good year that makes us think we could have added something else to make it even better?” he asks.

Since modern hybrids are bred to produce high yields, it’s a stretch to think they need “fixing” from additional products.

Nafziger says most of these products fall under the category of growth regulators. These include auxins, anti-auxins, cytokinins, ethylene inhibitors, gibberellins, growth inhibitors and growth stimulants.

Some of these products got their start in the fruit and vegetable industry. For example, ethylene inhibitors keep produce from ripening too quickly, enabling farmers to ship products longer distances. However, Nafziger isn’t convinced that success in fruits and vegetables translates to success in grain production.

No real proof

According to Nafziger, many of these products lack extensive neutral research to back up claims. In his own research, they typically produce little to no response. However, it’s tough to prove a negative.

“No amount of neutral research will prove without a doubt that something doesn’t work,” he explains.

For those who’d still like to give these products a whirl, Nafziger suggests holding them to the highest standard when attempting to verify the claims.

“Too often, folks will just apply this stuff without leaving check strips,” he explains. “Then, if yields were high, they attribute it to the product. We all want to believe if we’ve invested in this, then it will give us a good payoff.”

What’s it worth?

The first step in determining payback is defining payback. Rather than hoping for a 3-bushel increase, get specific. Determine how much the product and application cost. Then, factor in how many bushels are necessary to make it worthwhile.

Of course, any good payback indicator will change depending on market price. Be sure to keep that in mind.

Second, like Nafziger says, leave check strips in the field. Remember, it is necessary to do strips to determine the effects of any product. A field-by-field comparison just doesn’t work. The conditions are too variable.

Lastly, when sifting through corporate claims, remember, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Nafziger says a yield boost claim of 50 bushels should raise huge red flags.

“Is it reasonable to think there is something you could put on corn, other than nitrogen if you don’t have any, that would increase the yield by 50 bushels?” he asks. “The answer is, no.”

Questions to ask yourself


• Does this product cause any recognized response in plants?

• Have there been any real, believable comparisons?

• Can the product cause damage and lower yields?

• Is there a clear indication that corn plants need the help this product offers?

• If it relieves stress, is the stress a common one, thereby providing a higher chance forbenefit?

• Is it reasonable to apply and use this product?


This article published in the August, 2010 edition of PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.