How do you use biologicals on your farm?
In the last 15 years, a new category of products for row crop farmers has been gaining attention – biologicals. Although the market for this type of input is still developing, biologicals can be summarized as living microorganisms added to the soil.
Agronomist and owner of Integrated Ag Solutions, Mike Evans explains biologicals are often used early in the growing season to accomplish one of two goals:
- Break down crop residue
- Improve soil health and ramp up nutrient cycles
Some products target one specific nutrient to make it more available to the growing crop. Others in this category are designed for a wide range of nutrients, Evans adds.
Biologicals also come in different forms. Mixes, seed treatments, and stand-alone products are currently available.
“Last year, several companies were coming to the market with some pretty big claims,” explains Evans. “There are still a lot of unknowns at this point.”
XtremeAg farmers Kelly Garrett, Chad Henderson, and Dan Luepkes experimented with a number of biological products on their farms in the 2020 growing season and shared what they learned on a recent Zoom call with their member community.
Over the last growing season, Garrett used four products – Accomplish LM from Agricen, Micro AZ-IF and Vertex-IF from TerraMax, and Rhizolizer from Locus Ag Solutions – on his Arion, Iowa farm.
By midsummer, Garrett thought his 2020 irrigated corn crop might yield 400 bushels an acre. When the nitrogen started to fall in his regular tissue samples, he was disappointed.
“We were wanting to keep that above 4%,” he explains.
It was a problem he didn’t know how to solve. Garrett’s agronomist, Mike Evans, suggested they apply Rhizolizer.
“The source of nitrogen I’ve been using, I cannot get a response in my tissues because I don’t think it becomes available soon enough. Maybe we were experiencing some tie-up and we could get some things shook loose and available,” Garrett hoped.
They applied Rhizolizer through drip irrigation in late July. A week after applying, the team did tissue sampling again and saw a jump of 12%.
“I was very excited for the activity that it generated and how it made the nitrogen more available,” said Garrett.
In 2021, Garrett plans to use Rhizolizer in furrow and says along with the TerraMax products, these biologicals will be used on almost every acre he farms.
From his farm in Alabama, Henderson shared a tip based on a lesson he learned the hard way. For two years, he was using chlorinated water to apply his biological products. The chlorine killed the tiny living organisms.
“How much money do you think I flushed down? Check your water source before you jump head deep into biologicals,” he said.
Back in Illinois, Luepkes has used quite a few different biological products. He’s even made his own compost tea. Echoing Chad Henderson, he stresses the importance of knowing what you’re mixing the biological with.
“A lot of guys make the mistake of dumping it in with a mix that will probably kill the biological. A high salt starter in furrow, or even any salt in an in-furrow application is deadly to biologicals,” Luepkes says.
He recommends applying biologicals by themselves, if possible. While he’s experienced both success and failure with these products, Luepkes emphasizes the need for natural soil biology.
“You have to create that environment. That comes with cover crops. It comes with manures. It comes with good soil stewardship, and possibly no-till. A biological in a jug is no substitute for these other methods,” Luepkes says.
This winter, Luepkes is seeing encouraging results. Driving around, he noticed snow melts faster in fields where he’s worked to promote healthy biological activity.
“Every other field, right up to the fence row still had the 2 inches of snow,” he recalls. “It was pretty eye-opening to see the biological presence in the ground creating heat and keeping the soil more alive. There are still things going on down there, even when you think everything is dead for the winter.”