Do biologicals boost nutrient-use efficiency?

Written by Cameron Horine on .

Biologicals ABC 2879Cameron Horine, MFA precision data manager, discusses how biological products work and presents research results during MFA’s 2021 Training Camp field day in Boonville, Mo.

EVERY YEAR, MFA AGRONOMISTS and product manag­ers put together extensive trials that range from comparisons of corn and soybean varieties to applications of fertilizer, fungicide and everything in between. This research allows our team to evaluate products and provide solid agronomic information for MFA employees and producers.

A large part of our research looks at products that are being brought to the market to see if they are a fit for MFA’s producers. We reported results of several of this year’s trials in the March issue of Today’s Farmer. This article continues that discussion, focusing on biological nutrition products, which are growing market in the agricultural industry.

Agricultural biologicals are a diverse group of products derived from naturally occurring microorganisms, plant extracts, beneficial insects or other organic matter. In the past, most of the biologicals have found success in the seed treatment market. Being able to incorporate a living organ­ism on the seed and transferring that into the soil helps with early-season growth and/or nutrient uptake.

One prime example of this is a product called Quickroots by Novozymes BioAg. All of our MorCorn seed purchased by growers is currently pre-treated with this product. Quick­roots is a combination of a bacteria and mycorrhizae fungi that have been shown to help solubilize phosphate tied up in the soil and release it into the soil solution, making it readily available for crop uptake. In turn, this helps corn be more vigorous in the early stages of growth, especially at stand emergence when the plants can struggle with phosphorus utilization in cooler soils.

While many biologicals have come and gone in the past decade, one facet has still remained unclaimed: the ability for non-legume crops to produce and fixate their own nitrogen. Legumes such as soybeans, alfalfa and clover have a symbiotic relationship with naturally occurring bacteria in the soil, and each crop has its own species of bacteria with which it has this relationship.

The norm has been to include an inoculant with seed treatment on soy­beans when planting to help facilitate the startup of the symbiotic relation­ship more quickly in the growing sea­son. Without this naturally occurring process, we would have the unfortu­nate need of fertilizing soybeans with nitrogen. I say “unfortunate” because soybeans require approximately 4.5 times more nitrogen than corn to pro­duce 1 bushel of grain. We scoff at the price of nitrogen today for fertilizing corn. Imagine if we weren’t receiving nitrogen from the soil to produce our soybeans.

This is where many biological companies stand today. How can we find a way to get non-legume crops to “fixate” their own nitrogen? How can we reduce the commercially applied nitrogen needed to maintain the same corn yields?

Some products on the market today are making headway in that direction. We have looked at a couple of those products in the past and continue to do so, including Source by Sound Ag, UtrishaN by Corteva, and ProveN by PivotBio.

The challenge with testing these products is the same challenge that we face with nitrogen studies in general. The nutrient is fickle, and the deter­mination of nitrogen gains or losses in a year is highly weather dependent. At this time, we don’t have solid data to show with these products. We plan to spend more time this year looking at these biologicals and developing a plan to determine their value. Can we use them to increase our yield without changing any management practices? Are they really bringing us the “proposed” 25 to 35 pounds of N, allowing us to reduce our nitrogen fertilization? Or can they bring us both, allowing us to use them to help boost yield while also being insurance to replace nitrogen that may have been lost from volatility, denitrification or leaching?

With the forecast of nitrogen markets and the state of political change in farming practices, these prod­uct types may become necessary to continue to push our yields forward in the future.