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Looking Into the Real Efficiency of Biologicals

Several agricultural products on the market are made from naturally occurring organisms that could potentially enhance crop health and fertilizer uptake for corn and soybeans. Dan Kaiser is a nutrient management researcher with the University of Minnesota Extension Service. He gets a lot of questions about these products and has concerns about their performance consistency in different environments.

Kaiser; “The thing that I’ve been struggling with is the consistency of seeing how these products work or were consistent across environments. We just don’t see it, so that’s kind of the main thing. Looking at growers, what they see in trade magazines isn’t necessarily what I see in the research. And a lot of that is I think a lot on how some of these things are tested, so that’s a big thing, I stress to growers. If you’re testing these things, make sure that you’re setting up what you’re testing in a way that you can separate out the effects of a particular product from what is supposed to do. There are ways you can set things up, and it looks like it might be working, but it may not be working just because experiments aren’t set up properly.”

He says they’ve been testing a lot of biological “nitrogen fixers”; “These biological N-fixers have been easier because they’ve been targeted towards one thing, but a lot of the stuff in the past hasn’t necessarily been targeted. It’s just supposed to do things that enhance plant growth, which could increase nutrient uptake. So again, that’s things that are hard to measure. That’s kind of the thing that’s hard to prove sometimes. If you’re looking at what these things are doing to make sure that they’re actually doing it, just because a lot of the claims are pretty broad in terms of the overall effect of a particular product.”

While Kaiser is testing the products to see if the claims match up to the performance, he says there is some promise to them; “The issue with any of these biological products is that once you put them into the field, is there going to be a benefit from it because you can’t predict what’s going to happen? I mean, it’s living organisms, so you don’t know, is it alive when you apply it? Are the conditions optimal for it to colonize? Does it do any better than the native microbes that are out there? And there are a lot of questions in terms of what happens post-application. So, while a lot of these things are built around some sort of sound scientific concept, all bets are off once you get to the field.”

The biologicals are designed to supplement a complete fertility program, which Kaiser says is where farmers want to concentrate their spending.

Kaiser says; “I would not be sacrificing dollars. I would invest in my fertilizer program for these things. I would be taking care of getting those things optimal, then maybe looking at these things as an added benefit because, of the overall return on investment, the probability is you’re going to see something is going to be relatively low. Make sure you’ve got the table set very well with your nutrient management, and then these things, if you’ve got some money or you want to try something, that’s something that you can kind of go beyond that. But don’t forget about your standard fertility program when you’re making these decisions.”

Story courtesy of the NAFB News Service

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