Renewable Farming

Finally, growers are eager to test the benefits of “biological” tools for healthy soil

Yesterday, Sept. 20, 2017, is a date I’ll remember as long as my memory endures. It’s the first moment I ever saw a farmers’ cooperative actually buy breakfast for farmers, to entice them to come hear about a biologically alive product intended to restore microbial health to cropland. Land tortured for decades under salty NPK, tillage and what our friend Wendell Owens calls “Chempaction.”

Sept. 21, 2017 By Jerry Carlson — About 50 farmers responded to an invitation from Mike Williams, agronomist for Gold Eagle Co-op based in Goldfield, IA, to hear “local results” with a live-microbe residue digestion program from Midwest Biodyne. For two hours, company reps showed pictures, data and freshly dug cornstalks revealing crop response in central Iowa. More than 70% of Iowa, particularly west central Iowa, is rated in “severe” drought. Yet, fields treated just once, last fall, with a stalk residue digestion package have stayed green much longer than most corn in these counties. That means the corn is still filling kernel depth and test weight, translating recent rains into yield. 

What makes this meeting so memorable to me is that it’s a benchmark in “conventional” agronomy’s acknowledgement that soil biology deserves a chance. My first attempt to crack the NPK paradigm with a printed article dates to April 1984 — 33 years ago. A generation has died off since I published a feature in LandOwner newsletter: “Miracle Microbes, and other beneficial bugs that build your land’s productivity.” You can download and read that article at this link. Later in the 1980s, our first attempts at fielding “Renewable Farming” seminars struggled to interest the skeptics. They still followed the mantra laid down in the 1970s by an earlier colleague, Ralph Wennblom, then crops editor at Farm Journal: “The only thing you need soil for is to hold up the plant. Everything else, you can do with fertilizer and chemicals.”

So, yesterday, was an enjoyable morning. The message is getting out there. 

I told Midwest Biodyne rep John Hughes, “This is the first time I’ve seen a conventional farmer co-op…”  “…Buy in.” He finished the sentence for me. 

Individual “biological” firms have developed many residue digestion blends in the past 20 years. One of the earliest, and highly successful, is Residuce originated by AgriEnergy Resources, Princeton, Ilinois. (We provide Residuce to Renewable Farming clients.) AgriEnergy founder Dave Larson was telling farmers 30 years ago that “the most productive, healthy soils are those which have the greatest numbers and diversity of beneficial soil organisms.”

We’ve seen many examples of how Residuce accelerates cornstalk conversion to usable active humus. Hundreds of farmers confirm its profitability, even more so in the past few years as new traits have toughened cornstalks with higher lignin content.

But what attracted our attention to the Midwest Biodyne mixes, labeled as Environoc 401 and 501, is that co-op agronomist Mike Williams and others are documenting such a rapid biological response that this season’s corn-on-corn has remained green longer on fields sprayed last fall for the first time with Environoc 501. Our understanding has been that biological soil remediation benefits bloom gradually, over several years. The benefits include easier soil penetration as measured with a penetrometer. Greater moisture retention. Gradual multiplying of earthworms. And with time, higher and more consistent yields. But this fall, farmers were reporting treated vs. untreated corn yield gains of about 40 bushels this fall. After just one application of the 501 residue digester on last fall’s cornstalks. 

More results will flow in through this fall’s harvest. Meanwhile, here are my rough notes from the two-hour briefing yesterday morning:

Midwest Biodyne rep John Hughes made these points:
1. Accelerating residue digestion earlier into spring helps improve seedbed prep, soil-seed contact, and microbial “messages” encouraging seed to germinate uniformly. He cited Randy Dowdy’s study showing that measured from the first day the first corn spikes emerge, each one-day delay in emergence for the next four days reduces yield 20 bu. per day. Dowdy visited field plots on successive days, flagging each new spike with a different color flag, then at harvest time hand-measured ears from the stalks which had emerged the first, second, third, and fourth days.  
Apparently there’s more allelopathic competition in corn than most agronomists have expected.  So this was another benefit cited for a healthy-soil seedbed, early, beyond just releasing the $60 or so of NPK nutrients in corn stover carried over.
Hughes says, “Microbes encourage seeds to germinate. Healthy soil starts the germination clock in hours, not days, even in cool weather.”
2. The 501 microbe mix contains nitrogen fixing microbes as well as cellulose and lignin digesters.
3. One microbe in 501 “eats” chitin, a tough substance which happens to be a primary part of the piercing point in the nose of nematodes. “We don’t claim to be a nematode killer,” says Hughes, “But apparently this makes them uncomfortable.” 
4. Another microbe ingredient in 501 “specializes” in softening the waxy, glossy coat on cornstalks, which is a feedstock that cellulose and lignin digesters don’t eat. (That made me wonder if WakeUP Summer might be helpful in lifting that hydrocarbon wax off the stalk, so microbes can munch into the interiors of cornstalks more quickly.) 
5. Hughes said that early corn harvest reports from farmers in drought stressed areas are showing yield differences “as wide as” 110 bu. on the untreated side of fields, 200 on the treated side.  Not random-rep trials, but from fields which normally don’t show those ranges.  Hughes says, “I’m getting tons of field photos from farmers; everyone has a smartphone camera and they’re eager to show with-and-without differences.”
Bob Wagner, Clear Lake, IA crop consultant and distributor for Midwest Biodyne, said:
1. Earliest harvest soybean field so far showed an 8.75 bu. gain in a 30-acre field section where 2016 cornstalks had been treated with 501. Bob said, “That’s just one field so far, not a trend.”
2. Pocahontas County, IA went 9 weeks with only 3/10 inch of rain in May-June. One grower there reported to Wagner that he planted corn April 13 and just harvested. The field sections treated with 401 and 501 microbes yielded 41 bu. more than the untreated.  
Other farmer reports are coming in at 65 bu. to 125 bu. across that hard-hit county. Wagner says, “But some microbe treated fields are hitting 207 bushels.” 
3. Another grower in that area hasn’t harvested corn yet but had told Bob Wagner that this spring he applied (apparently in-furrow) six gallons of 6-24-6 and a pint of Biodyne microbes and the treated corn tasseled four days earlier than the untreated.
A few days ago, we posted some photos of treated corn, provided by agronomist Mike Williams, which you can see at this link. 
Farmer Bob Wagner describes current local results of residue digestion technology… such as green corn late in a dry season
Over these 30 years, I’ve seen dozens of new products emerge with great promise and then gradually fade. In our own field trials, only about one out of three micronutrient blends showed consistent, year-after-year yield gains on soybeans. There are many variables in agriculture, so the lack of performance often results from an overwhelming effect of weather, or soil type or hidden stress.
Variable performance should be expected in agriculture, especially with live microbial organisms which interact with existing soil microbiota. What we’d suggest for anyone interested in residue treatment is to test more than one product on your soil, side by side, for at least a couple of years. Examine the speed of residue breakdown. Measure yield results; it’s much easier now with combine yield monitors. Farmers who’ve built toward that “undisturbed fencerow” population of balanced soil microbial life using less tillage, more cover crops and manure applications will probably see less yield response to a residue digester than farmers with low-CEC, less fertile soils. 
One of the most consistent-performing biological products we’ve seen is AgriEnergy’s SP-1, which can be used in-furrow or foliar. It just works, season in and season out.  The Gold Eagle Co-op venture into explore more “biological farming” with new tools looks like another very encouraging adventure toward healthier soil.
Independent crop consultant Bob Streit has been watching results of this product too. Today, we excerpted the comments below from Bob, just posted on his weekly report. It’s at his website, found at this link.

“A few weeks ago an agronomist contacted my work partner to walk a few fields that were very healthy and green in a county in NW Iowa that had only received .4” of rain between June 1 and Aug. 15. While the neighboring fields were in serious moisture stress, these fields treated with a new microbial mix looked great. Finding out what was causing the difference was something worth exploring.
“Since our first exposure to the product, we have met with the small company’s officers and agronomist and things look very authentic. We visited the fields west of Pocahontas on Friday and what we saw were fields that should still yield over 200 Bu/A versus fields that are likely to be less than half of that goal. All of those fields were continuous corn, which is typically a handicap.
“And in spite of the dry conditions, most of the residue that ties up the nutrients from the previous crop had been decomposed. In an aerial thermographic photo the plants in the treated area remained dark green surrounded by yellow and red foliage that was much warmer and stressed. We have been looking for an easy, quick, and affordable method and product to use to boost microbial populations, Haney Scores and degrade corn residue. At this point the BioDyne 501 product in the fall and the 401 in the spring with the UAN or in-furrow look very promising.
“So with the realization that there are no silver bullets but different products that can be used in a systems approach, I see these microbials fitting in very nicely in the cropping system for quite a few people. Knowing John Kempf, the young Amish Ag consultant from Ohio, when asked if he liked the term sustainable agriculture, responded by saying he saw nothing worth sustaining, and that he preferred a ‘regenerative program’, where the soils, soil biology and soil health were restored to higher levels.
“We will have to follow up and make sure Haney and PLFA analyses are done on soil samples from those fields over this and the next few growing seasons. But the issue or managing the residue from heavier populations with good stalk quality will be an issue again this fall. The 501 looks like a product that is worth trying on some of your acres.”
The array of tools for scouting your fields for soil health is quickly expanding, especially by aerial imaging. Here’s a link to a detailed report by Jim Patrico posted on AgFax, describing how farmers are using drones, manned aircraft and satellites to cross-check crop performance.