Seed & Chemical
Yield Increases from Biologicals
By Rosalie Tennison
Imagine growing a perfect high-yielding crop with no pest or disease damage. Now, imagine that achievement can be reached without the use of pesticides or tweaking fertility. It’s not a far-fetched idea. In fact, several companies have developed biological inoculants by harnessing micro-organisms that are present in the soil. It’s a matter of identifying the organisms, determining how they operate and then finding a way to reproduce, package and apply them in order to reap the benefits.
While crop protection companies are dabbling in “biologicals” that will work alongside their other products and seed companies are seeking biologicals that will work with their seed products, other companies have been focusing exclusively on identifying organisms that will benefit crop production. One company, Becker Underwood of Ames, Iowa, has a number of inoculant and biological plant health products that it is marketing to North American farmers. Company CEO Dr. Peter Innes says successful crop production in the future will rely on the harnessing of micro-organisms that will assist in reducing disease and insect damage, enhance nutrient availability and uptake, and improve overall well-being and productivity of the crop.
“The increasing complexity in agriculture brings challenge, and challenge brings opportunity,” Dr. Innes says. “Innovation is important.” He adds that, by identifying the organisms in the soil that assist in crop production and then making them available more efficiently to the crop as a seed treatment or a spray, we help the crop more effectively realize the value of the organisms.
Another company that has been active in the biological industry for years is Novozymes BioAg of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The company had initial success with JumpStart, one of the first truly biological products that enhances phosphate fertility. They now have a number of MultiAction inoculant products in various formulations for various crops that offer nitrogen fixation in addition to the phosphate inoculant sold as TagTeam.
“The cost of doing genetic sequencing has come down, making it easier to identify material and get it to farmers,” says Novozymes’ BioAg division president Trevor Thiessen. “The cost is a fraction of what it was 15 years ago.” He adds that there has been an acceleration towards combining technologies, such as seed treatments with biologicals.
The chatter about biological treatments is not new and some have reached the marketplace, but, because they are living organisms, there have been challenges. The products rely on fermentation and formulation and, once created, they must be kept alive through the entire crop planting process. As well, the products must be safe and work effectively with seed and other products. In the past, storage was an issue, as was shelf life, and care in application was imperative. But, companies working with these organisms are quickly finding ways to overcome the limitations.
Becker Underwood has introduced BioStacked inoculants, which combine a number of complementary biologicals that increase the possibility of better consistency and greater efficacy. The company introduced a range of products that are available in Canada for soybeans that combine Rhizobium inoculants with a registered biofungicide. The goal of combining products is to improve plant vigour, nutrient uptake, plant growth, rooting and rhizobial nodule development, all of which encourage higher yield. Application is possible with conventional seed treatment equipment.
Meanwhile, other companies continue to make progress developing their own formulations of biological products. BrettYoung entered the biological business more than 10 years ago when it started its research program to commercialize a unique plant growth promoting rhizobacteria – Delftia acidovorans. The research originally focused on the sulphur-oxidizing capabilities of the organism, but it has proven to have a number of other beneficial modes of action resulting in higher yields. The organism has been commercialized for canola and for soybeans under the BioBoost brand name. The soybean product also contains Bradyrhizobium for nitrogen fixation.
“The value of biological products for producers is measured in better yield and better performance,” says Rene Mabon, regulatory and agronomic manager for BrettYoung. “We are seeing positive yield effects in both canola and soybeans with our BioBoost products.” He adds that the company has increased its research into biological products within the last decade because of the connection to the company’s seed business and the possibility of providing customers with products that will increase the seed’s success in the field.
Those companies that invested in the technology in the early years of the industry are now well placed to assist growers in this next evolution of crop production. The combination of biologicals such as Novozymes’ TagTeam and BrettYoung’s BioBoost is one example of this next step. Nutrient enhancement, pest control and seed protection in various combinations are all being researched, with effective results available or soon to be available.
“This is an area that will continue to grow,” Mabon says. “As we understand how biologicals work and how they can be incorporated into crop production, we will see more and more microbial products in the market.”
Thiessen agrees. “The combination of products is getting better and we have learned how to stabilize the micro-organisms,” he says. “The technology has improved and we have more resources today. The cost to develop new genetically modified seed is huge compared to finding a new biological product and we are also seeing markets shifting with large ones, such as the European Union, demanding less chemistry in crop production.”
The trick is understanding how biologicals work and then learning how to harness them, give them shelf life and get them into fields where they can be put to use. There is no doubt they work, but consistency is imperative. For these companies, mastering the process is giving them an acceptance in the agricultural world that was only dreamed of a decade ago.