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The biologicals boom

While the scientific terms and jugs filled with living organisms may be new, humans have been cultivating soil health since the dawn of agriculture.

“The history of using biologicals has almost been around as long as agriculture has been around,” says Adam Kayser, a technical agronomist for Novozymes. “Early on, farmers across the world somehow understood that when they cultivated a crop into a new piece of land and added soil from land where they previously grew that crop, they — and I use the term loosely — inoculated the soil. This made their crop do a bit better.”

Today, biologicals are a booming business, providing farmers with innovative ways to manage crops and increase yields.

“I always start with standard crop management because we have to build a strong base,” says Connor Sible, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “We have to make sure we select the right genetics to give our farm the best potential, and then you have to manage those genetics. A lot of that starts with the planter.”

As farmers shift to greater plant populations, root systems will decrease in size and require better management to reach maximum yield.

“On average, we lose 2.5% of our root mass per plant for every 1,000-plant increase in population,” Sible says. “We are planting 400 more plants per acre a year, which means we are losing 1% of our per plant root biomass every single year. These smaller roots are more susceptible to stress, and we’re going to have to better manage that stress through things like biologicals.”

What are biologicals?

Like many up-and-coming products, biologicals are hard to define.

“The term biologicals is an overarching umbrella,” says Kayser. “Underneath that umbrella, you have a microbial category, which would represent living organisms in that space. Then we also have some newly developed categories, things like enzymes.”

While the biological market is expanding to include new products, Kayser keeps his definition simple.

“I frame it as living organisms, your microbes, and products that are manufactured by microbes,” he says.

The variety in products labeled as biologicals can lead to confusion when making product choices and management decisions. Sible breaks the market into seven subcategories:

  • Nitrogen-fixing bacteria — beneficial microbes that aim to increase nitrogen from atmospheric sources rather than fertilizers.
  • Phosphorus-solubilizing bacteria — beneficial microbes that aim to increase the amount of plant-available phosphorus in the soil.
  • Mycorrhizal fungi — beneficial microbes that aim to extend plant root systems for better nutrient uptake.
  • Enzymes/phosphatases — biostimulants that increase the availability of organic nutrients in soils, currently targeted for phosphorus.
  • Humic and fulvic acids — biostimulants that chelate soil cations to keep phosphorus available and supply micronutrients such as zinc, as well as feed microbes and stimulate root zones.
  • Marine extracts — biostimulants that can mitigate drought stress when foliar-applied or promote root growth and soil microbial activity when applied to soil.
  • Sugars — biostimulants that provide a direct energy source for microbes when soil-applied or stimulate the plant to mitigate stress when used in a foliar application.

Gil Gullickson

Management Practices

When it comes to biologicals, products should be handled more like seeds than other chemicals.

“You definitely have to treat [microbials] differently than a hard chemistry or a fertilizer product because they’re alive and their benefit comes from them staying alive and multiplying beyond their initial dose,” Kayser says.

“Anything that could be deleterious to their life would result in not seeing the benefit of that organism. We handle seeds with great care because if we hurt the bean, we hurt the germination.” 

The vast array of products means no single best practice is outlined for biologicals. Understanding each product is key to making the most of applications. 

“Wade through the marketing and look at the label,” Sible says. “Know how the product is designed to influence the system so you can decide if you need it and how you can place it in your program.”

Farmers should also carefully consider when and how biologicals are applied. 

“Oftentimes, biologicals don’t get their own pass or application across the field,” Kayser says. “They’re often tank-mixed or teamed up with another application or pass across the field.”

Product type can dictate the most optimal time to apply a biological. Many biologicals are applied as a seed treatment or in-furrow during planting. 

“On the living microbe side, a lot of products are dosed to a certain degree and we need those organisms to multiply or colonize for them to be valuable,” Kayser says. “That takes some time, so automatically those types of products go on the front end of a growing season.” 

Other products are beneficial throughout the season. 

“Some of those nonliving biological agents are applied season long because we’re not as concerned about longevity,” Kayser says. “It’s more about the instantaneous value that they bring.”

Are they for you?

The surge in the biological market can make it difficult to fully understand which product, if any, is right to implement on the farm. Most farms could benefit from a well-thought-out biological application, Kayser says. 

“I do think they’re right for every grower. I think there’s definitely a place for them,” Kayser says. “I think a lot of growers have really jumped in with both feet and are starting to piece it all together and understand where biologicals fit.”

Compared to other products such as fertilizer and herbicides, biologicals are a fairly inexpensive management option. 

“Biologicals are usually never applied by themselves. They always hitch a ride with something else,” Kayser says. “So it really costs no more money other than what a grower’s already doing to apply and use these products.” 

For farmers considering biologicals, a clear goal should drive decision making. 

“Don’t force the biological into your system,” Sible says. “Find the reason for the biological, and then go find the product you need.”

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