Biologically based crop inputs are moving from the orchards and cabbage patch to corn and soybean fields. A combination of higher value commodity crops, synergies between biologicals and synthetic chemical controls, new research tools and major corporate investments are driving the trend.

Mike Hubbard, crop consultant, Kootenai Valley Farm & Research, Bonners Ferry, Idaho, has worked with biologicals in high-value crops, cereal grains and, increasingly, corn.

Ron Landis, Schoolcraft, Mich., is one of those looking for additional bushels. He’s used Torque, a biofertility product from Novozymes BioAg, with starter fertilizer for five years, and reports yield increases ranging from 2 to 10 bu./acre. The best results, he suggests, come when growing conditions are less than optimal.

Landis took first place for the state in the no-till/strip-till irrigated class in 2011 NCGA yield trials, with 248 bu./acre. He maintains high fertility levels, something he suspects limits his yield bumps from Torque, since it is the root system where he sees the difference. “We’ve sampled roots ourselves and have seen 10-20% greater root mass, even with the fine root hairs, with Torque,” says Landis. “That bigger root mass takes up nutrients more effectively.”

 

More credibility and capital

For years, enhanced growth like Landis reports was the common claim made for biologicals. However, public and private researchers often failed to substantiate the claims, resulting in suggestions that such products were “snake oil.” In recent years, new-generation biologicals have proven themselves as yield enhancers and biopesticides and sometimes both. In particular, they’ve been successful when combined with synthetic chemicals, such as nematode control in the seed treatment package Poncho/Votivo.

Proof of these successes has been the rapid and aggressive acquisitions of leading biological firms by major agricultural chemical companies, like the recent acquisitions of AgraQuest (biopesticide and bioyield enhancers) by Bayer CropScience, Becker Underwood (inoculants) by BASF Crop Protection and Pasteuria Bioscience (nematode control) and Devgen (biological disease inhibitor technology) by Syngenta Crop Protection. Monsanto recently announced a $29-million investment in a biological pesticide venture, and multiple other partnerships among independents and the majors are in play.

The shift in thinking didn’t come easily, suggests Pam Marrone, who founded AgraQuest in 1995 and more recently Marrone Bio Innovations. She recalls the difficulty of introducing biologicals in the 1990s. “When we started, growers didn’t want to talk to us about biologicals, and distributors weren’t interested. When public researchers tested them, they did it wrong, often stand-alone against the best cocktail of chemistries, and then said that they didn’t work.”

There are a number of factors that can inhibit biologicals, adds Matt Kowalski, president, Natural Industries, maker of biological fungicides for high-value crop segments. “We found that researchers were testing our Streptomycesproduct Actinovate AG with chlorinated water. As little as 1 ppm can kill everything. Some organisms are sensitive to other factors such as pH or temperature extremes. Living products can be affected by the environment.”

Kowalski suggests that initial grower acceptance of biologicals also was limited by a lack of knowledge about how they work, as well as some unrealistic expectations. “Some companies oversold their products,” he says. “Biologicals are not a cure-all in every situation.”

 

Obvious benefits, hidden synergies

While not a cure-all, a new generation of biologicals is earning more respect. One unique aspect of biologicals is that unlike chemical inputs, designed to solve a pest control or nutrient deficiency, a number of biologicals do that and more. Quantifying multiple benefits can be difficult. Ballad Plus, an AgraQuest legacy product labeled for both corn and soybeans, is a good example of a product that provides disease control, and improves plant health and yield, suggests Marcus Meadows-Smith, head of Biologics, Bayer CropScience.

“We recommend Ballad Plus alone or as a tank mix with the strobilurin chemistry,” Meadows-Smith says. “Our products, for the most part, are beneficial bacteria that produce metabolites that offer a level of control equivalent to chemical products. However, because of interaction with the plant, some microbial products produce secondary metabolites that stimulate growth of a larger root system and very compelling yield increases.”

Marrone’s fungicide Regalia is based on plant extracts and offers another example of synergistic impact. Duke Palasini, Palasini Farms, Leland, Miss., reported positive results using Regalia with Quadris. He saw similar benefits using Regalia with Headline.

He aerially applied an 80-acre soybean field with Quadris on half and a combination of it and Regalia on the other half, he recalls. “The Quadris alone yielded about 59 bu./acre, and the combination yielded 64-65 bu./ acre. The two worked real well.”

According to Marrone, initial research suggests that Regalia may boost plant proteins, benefiting yield as well as fighting disease. Aggressive research efforts with new technologies are not only explaining how microbes and plant extracts work, they are also uncovering countless new potential crop protectants and growth promotants.

“If you go back 20 years, there was an understanding of the soil-microbe interaction, but not the analytics,” says Trevor Thiessen, president, Novozymes BioAg. Today a genome map costs a fraction of what it initially cost, he says. This has opened the door to understanding how a microbe functions and reacts in the soil. We are better able to exploit the genetics of the organism.”

Thiessen points to other advances, such as bioanalytic screening and microbe manipulation, that parent company Novozymes has developed for enzyme research. “Our rate of knowledge is growing exponentially as we understand these techniques,” he says. “In any given month, we screen hundreds of thousands of mutants or microbe variants in our collection.”

Meadows-Smith points to the level of research large companies bring to the table. “Bayer CropScience is investing $6.4 billion in research from 2011 to 2016, with increased focus on seed and biologicals,” he says. “We aren’t replacing synthetic chemistry. Biologicals are complementary and synergistic to seed and chemical controls, providing integrated and superior solutions. We have products in the pipeline that will help plants overcome abiotic stress issues like drought.”