Renewable Farming

Biological yield boosters: Next new technology for farmers

You’ve probably noticed a widening array of “biological” ag products calling for your attention the past few years. Some are seed treatments, others are in-furrow or foliar applied. Some are live organisms such as beneficial bacteria or mycorrhizal fungi. Others are plant growth promoters derived from natural sources. At Renewable Farming, we’ve been field-testing Lignition, one of the most promising “biologicals.” We’re also working with Vitazyme, a biological which has been field-proven for years, to evaluate how much WakeUP enhances its activity.

Then there are products intended for biological pest management, as an alternative to toxic technologies.

For perspective on this trend, our longtime colleague Dick Hagen of Olivia, MN interviewed another friend: Crop consultant Bob Streit. We’re publishing the questions and answers here. Streit was a seed industry agronomist for 20 years before becoming an independent crop consultant. Here are Hagen’s questions, and Streit’s answers. Hagen’s questions focused on the pest management products coming to market.

What’s driving this strong interest in biological pest management?

I think we have a lot more maturity in the companies getting involved in this field. Because we’re seeing some significant and economic benefits from this products, we’re suddenly getting more ‘main stream’ buy-in by some University people, especially from those forward thinking researchers who are willing to think outside the box. They’re realizing these are not ‘hocus pocus’ products but they actually do work and they have a scientific background in their development.

Are American farmers quick to pick up on these new technologies?

Anything but! In other countries, notably Brazil and Argentina, farmers are way ahead of us on the adoption of biological pest management strategies. Why? I see them as more intense producers. Their agronomists perhaps are also better trained in this area because their teachers and professors do more ‘hands on’ teaching. They’re much more in the field, working with farmers and product specialists rather than sitting behind their desks. Also our South American farmers are much more willing to scout their fields and visually spot the adjustments to make in their management practices.

Bob Streit

I put out a plot in early July with a northern Iowa producer for an Belgium micronutrient firm. This farmer has a direct injection, twin- tank Hagie Hi-Clearance sprayer. He also has two Brazilian agronomists working for him this cropping season.

These two cannot believe that U.S. farmers do not get out into their fields inspecting on a weekly; even more frequently if field conditions demand. In Brazil farmers and agronomists are in their fields till 7 o’clock Saturday night! They’re much more willing to jump off their tractors, dig in their soils and actually figure out what is making their crop grow either good or bad.

Are biological pest management strategies needed worldwide to feed 9 billion by 2050?

I recently sat with a guy who took no-till farming from Europe to Brazil. I asked him if Malthus would eventually be proven correct. The Malthus theory was simply that world population would eventually exceed world food production. He said ‘yes, most definitely, unless we find some new formulas for getting much more production from each parcel of land.’

Jerry Hatfield, former head of the USDA Soil Tilth Center, simply says ‘Traits are nice, traits are fancy but if we’re going to feed this world in the future it’s because we finally decided to pay much more attention to the soil.’  

That means making our soils considerably richer in biological activity while also increasing the organic matter and CEC (carbon equivalent capacity) so the soils hold more of the moisture that falls early in the season until it is needed later in the summer.

So might these biological products make our crops more ‘efficient’ during hot and dry seasons?

There’s only one piece of research so far on that question. That was done in Dr. Bob Kremer’s lab, University of Missouri (also USDA) by a post-graduate PhD student (Zobiole, who now lives in Brazil). Dr. Zobiole in lab work found that certain traits genetically engineered into corn hybrids actually double the rate of water usage per bushel of yield. And when we’re working on better ‘water utilization’ by our corn hybrids, that’s absolutely the wrong direction.  Unfortunately virtually all University researchers are ‘forbidden’ to test that sort of question. Why? Because it might reflect badly on some of the genetic engineering traits already bred into the system.

Because corn and wheat are major food crops worldwide, are they ‘best suited’ for the adoption of biological strategies?

Yes, most logically because that is where most of the work has been done so far. Cost-effective and measurable results are key to acceptance. And this is what’s happening. The Missouri soybean farmer getting 160 bu. yields uses a host of different inputs, different strategies. Timely application of certain biological products are part of his success.

These new products coming out will definitely be huge in significant yield increases down the road. I’m talking biologically based hormonal products that will trigger biological response in the targeted crop. Biological science will become increasingly important in feeding the world; maybe even more so than genetic and trait engineering.

Are current USDA and EPA policies encouraging the continued growth of biological pest management for American agriculture?

Yes. If a new herbicide or pesticide comes along and it is biologically based, EPA will ‘fast track’ that development. So much so that if the company with the new product asks for a label on three crops, EPA might grant a label for 20 crops. That’s how much EPA and USDA are ‘on board’ in getting these new strategies into American crop production. And that is basically because these new products present little or no challenge to the environment and the soils which grow our crops.

Part of the current problem is we don’t have enough scientists and University researchers working in this area partly because these are not ‘high profile’ projects. That means they don’t generate as much grant money. And the reality is that grant money is absolutely needed to fund some of these projects.