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Learn how microbial and biological products affect yields

Microbial and biological products may boost crop efficiency and yields, but they can’t do it alone.

If microbes had feelings, they’d probably curl up and feel sorry for themselves. After all, microbes – like bacteria – have spawned multiple diseases ranging from the bubonic plague to tuberculosis. 

Microbes aren’t all bad guys, though. Ever seen those probiotic ads that pepper the airwaves these days? Probiotics are microbes that keep your gut healthy.

These biological bugs are also moving into the crops sector via seed treatments. These microbial good guys are breathing fresh life into a yield-sparking strategy that once mainly belonged to the nitrogen-fixing bacteria Bradyrhizobia japonicum. Historically, farmers have added this microbe on soybean seed to spark nodulation in soils void of this vital nitrogen-fixing bacteria.  

In recent years, though, other microbe- and biological-based seed treatments have hit the market, such as Poncho/Votivo from Bayer CropScience in 2011. The Votivo portion consists of seed-coated bacterial spores. When the spores germinate, they protect soybean roots from soybean cyst nematodes (SCN) by forming a protective barrier. It doesn’t directly kill SCN, but renders many of them ineffective.

Meanwhile, microbial bioinsecticides now marketed can help protect crops against insects. Ditto for biofungicides that enable plants to deter disease. Some microbial products aid plants in using nutrients better.  

“Microbial products can aid root development so that when stress starts, they can help plants take up water and nutrients,” says Bret Gygi, Monsanto BioAg technology development lead. 

Microbial and biological products can also help crops combat drought tolerance and cold and wet conditions. Early planting is one way to garner better corn and soybean yields – if plants can push past early cold and wet soils. 

“If a grower plants early and a cold snap follows, microbes can help a plant endure those conditions,” says Marcus Meadows-Smith, chief executive officer of BioConsortia.

Buggy baggage 

In the past, other microbial-based products have existed besides Bradyrhizobia japonicum. Many were difficult to use and had inconsistent results.

They also carried the snake-oil baggage of friendly fellows with toothy grins and little else when they enticed farmers to buy magical potions “guaranteed” to boost crop performance. Historically, many of these products have promised to spark yields by boosting soil microbial life by just adding a few gallons per acre to the soil. Unfortunately, the billfolds of farmers buying these compounds have become as empty as the promises carried by these bogus products.  

“There can be billions of microbes in a teaspoon of soil,” says Meadows-Smith. “Trying to change soil microbiology is an impossible task.” 

That’s why adding them via seed treatment and keeping them close to the seed to feed off plant exudates is key, he explains. 

The tenor of these products, Meadows-Smith says, changed in 2008. More synthetic pesticides were delisted as regulatory and expense pressures hindered development of new ones. Resistance to insect-resistant traits soon surfaced. Big players also moved in and purchased smaller companies. AgraQuest partnered with BASF, Monsanto, Pfizer Animal Health, and Bayer CropScience before Bayer bought it in 2012. This cranked up research and development as well as extensive product testing. 

“We couldn’t have done it alone,” says Meadows-Smith, who formerly headed AgraQuest.

Many of today’s products also have data backing them. Field testing in randomized and replicated tests helps separate biological compounds with potential from those that are just fluff. 

“We literally record data from thousands of plots,” says Doug Dorsey, Monsanto BioAg marketing director.

These products cost little. Dorsey notes that Monsanto’s soybean microbial products hover between $4 to $5 per acre, with corn products costing between $6 to $8 per acre.

If they don’t work, though, that’s $4 to $8 per acre you could retain. That’s where extensive testing and data come in. 

“If there’s a 50-50 chance of a payoff, that’s a toss-up for a farmer. If data shows there’s a 65% to 75% chance of a payoff, though, that may tilt the odds in favor of use,” says Dorsey.

Your best bet for microbial success? Use microbial- and biological-based seed treatments in tandem with other control measures.

“Biologicals won’t be able to replace every synthetic chemical that’s now being used to control pests,” says Meadows-Smith. Teaming these products with synthetic chemistries or traits can forestall resistance by taking the heat off a single control method.  

Ditto for microbial-based compounds that help plants better use nutrients. 

“The nutrients still have to be there,” says Gygi. Even if you use biological seed treatments, you should still apply fertilizer based on soil tests, he adds.

Microbes working in tandem can better aid crops, say company officials. It’s akin to a SmartStax combo in traits, where eight traits work together to protect corn from insects and weeds.

“It won’t be one or just two or three. It will be 10 or 20 microbes working in combination,” says Dorsey. 

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Compared with traits or synthetic chemistry, the regulatory climate may also be more friendly to microbial and biological products. Although less regulation can speed products to market, it can also create a buyer-beware atmosphere.  

“Make sure that you go with a company that can back its products with research and a good manufacturing process,” says Meadows-Smith. 

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