Biologicals: Part of the Picture

October 24, 2015 02:03 AM

The not-so-new technology offering new solutions

General yield data didn’t satisfy corn and soybean farmer Mat Muirheid. So, he took to testing biologicals on his Oakley, Ill., fields to find out if the hype was worth his time and money.

“If it doesn’t pay off, I’m not going to use it,” Muirheid says. “I work closely with my retailers and ask a lot of questions.”

He’s in his third year of testing a variety of biologicals—products aimed at protecting the plant, maximizing nutrient efficiency, increasing germination or promoting growth. Some products passed muster. Muirheid currently has at least one biological on 90% of his soybean acres.

Biologicals, which have been around since the Great Depression,  can be found in inoculants, pesticides, seed treatments and other applications, so you might have them on your farm and not even realize it. 

As the push for yield has intensified over the past several years, more agriculture companies have boosted their investment in biologicals. That’s because they’ve found protecting the plant early on results in protecting yield at harvest. 

“Biologicals fall into three categories,” says Ry Wagner, CEO, Agrinos. “There are biofertilizers that act as the building blocks for soil health and nutrient utilization; biostimulants that help with stress relief and increase crop vigor; and biocontrols that help defend or suppress pathogens in the crops through various modes of action. These can be delivered through a number of different mechanisms.”

The delivery method depends on the purpose of the biological and the target determines how it will be applied. Methods include soil-applied, in-furrow, seed treatment and foliar application, among others. Since biologicals are living organisms, they need to quickly get back into an environment they can survive to help them perform as expected. For example, if you’re looking for nematode protection, it makes sense to use soil, seed treatment or in-furrow applications since that’s where the biologicals’ host is.

Biologicals use four major modes of action, explains Jennifer Riggs, Bayer CropScience SeedGrowth product development manager.

“Competition outcompetes the things we want to keep away; antibiosis produces a metabolite that protects; micro parasitism means the fittest survive; and induced systemic resistance tells the plant to turn on natural defenses,” Riggs says.

These four modes of action are used where they fit best in biofertilizer, biostimulant and biocontrol methods. While these are not the only modes of action, they are the most popular in row crop agriculture:

  • Competition uses the biological agent to force out the problem. For example, the biological acts like a crowded elevator with the problem organism trying to squeeze in. If the biological acts like it is supposed to, the problem organism will not make it in, Riggs says.
  • Antibiosis means the biological uses metabolites to interfere with the target pest’s growth or other activities. When effective, the pest eventually dies or becomes otherwise ineffective since it cannot grow the way it needs to for survival.
  • With micro parasitism, two living organisms fight each other. Whichever is the strongest and most resilient kills the other and survives.
  • Induced systemic resistance tricks the plant into turning on its natural defenses. It makes the plant think it’s being attacked, which sends it into defensive mode and helps protect it from real threats.
In his soybean fields, Mat Muirheid sees an average of 6 bu. to 7 bu. increase with biologicals.

Many in the agriculture industry agree biologicals are unlikely to completely replace chemicals in conventional farming operations. Like a corn hybrid that performs great one year but does poorly the next, biologicals rely on weather, moisture and other uncontrollable factors to perform. Since no two crop years are the same, biologicals might have inconsistent results year to year.

“The idea is to not only improve yields but also consistency,” says Shawn Semones, Novozymes director of BioAg research and development. “The quality of science applied to this industry is dramatically increasing.”

The challenge to create a consistent product starts at the beginning of biologicals’ production.

“These are naturally occurring organisms that are very resilient,” says Justin Clark, BASF technical market specialist. “We grow them up and put them right back into their environment.”

But because farm fields naturally include variables such as weather, soil and temperature, sometimes the organism dies or fails to perform as expected. That is one of the reasons most companies encourage farmers to look at biologicals as part of a system, not a standalone solution. 

“When you put a biological out there, it’s a lot more complicated than a chemical,” says Eric Tedford, Syngenta fungicide technical product lead. “Consider a biological that’s a fungus mixed in a tank with fungicide—it has to be able to survive.”

As companies pump more money into biologicals research, look for more products focusing on plant health, vigor, nutrient uptake, weed control, nematode protection and other ways to help increase productivity.

If you’re considering adding biologicals to your program next year, check to make sure the product is registered through USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency. Since biologicals are still fairly new to row-crop agriculture, some products have optional registration. It might be valuable to make sure the product you plan to use is registered to solidify its safety and efficacy.

As more research is conducted and more biological products come to market, it will be important to understand biologicals as an option and how they will perform for you as part of your overall system. 

“Biologicals are in the infancy stages of farming,” Muirheid says. “Don’t be afraid to try them on a small basis. With the products I’ve tried, I need 4 bu. per acre to make it worth it.” 

The Biological Footprint is Bigger than Agriculture

Biologicals are living organisms derived from plants, animals or bacteria. To produce them for human use, they’re put in a lab where they’re fermented to induce reproduction of larger quantities of the organism, then placed back into an environment where they can thrive. When used in agriculture, biologicals are placed in an environment where they’re mutually beneficial for the crops and themselves.

While the popularity of biologicals in agriculture is fairly new, they have been used in other industries for a number of years with great success. End-use food processors use them in wine, beer, bread, cheese, yogurt, yeast and several other foods. The pharmaceutical industry uses biologicals in several ways. One example is insulin produced through fermentation, says Jim Pullins, Verdesian marketing manager of seed treatment and inoculants.

Biologicals don’t stop in end-use food processing and pharmaceutical industries. They can be found in soaps, detergents, cleaning materials, waste water treatment, municipal water facilities, septic systems, aquaculture and animal health, to name a few.

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