The Baseline on Biologicals

April 7, 2021

Ag Microbials and/or Ag Biologicals is a segment in agriculture receiving a lot of focus in recent years. This focus is due to benefits microbes can provide over synthetic chemicals. Their novelty is measured by their ability to provide modes of actions and solutions not found in other classes of ag chem. An interesting feature of microbial products is their potential to increase in number and perhaps grow and move with the growth of the crop. Their use is often associated with safety and sustainability both in their manufacture as well as placement and use in the environment.

We may not realize or fully appreciate how growers have been utilizing microbes as tools, but they have been used in agricultural production for as long as crops have been cultivated. Early farmers learned how moving soil from previously cropped fields to new fields resulted in visual differences and improvements over untreated areas. Symbiotic plant-microbe relationships have been leveraged to improve crops long before commercial fertilizer was invented. In fact the first patented microbe in the US for ag production preceded anhydrous ammonia manufacturing by almost 40 years. Root nodule symbiosis, represented by legume crop’s ability to fix atmospheric N2 gas for plant use, is the most recognized plant-microbe symbiosis. Other symbiotic relationships, such as Plant-Mycorrhizal Fungi symbiosis, improve a plant’s ability to take in water and nutrients.

Microbes have been the foundation of some of the biggest discoveries and advancements in agriculture. Farmers began using Bacillus thuringiensis over 100 years ago to control moth, lepidopteran, pests. Combining the tools that nature provided, Bt parasporal crystal protein toxic to lepidopteran, with modern technologies resulted in Bt corn today. This work foundational was in paving the way for further innovations.

Navigating this industry and the quality of manufacturers can be tricky. It is important to remember that Ag Microbials are “living” cells, living cells that eat, breathe, multiply and divide. This also means that they can die. Often the most significant oversight by manufacturer comes down to packaging and storage. In agriculture we typically use products packaged in shuttles or plastic jugs. While those containers are safe and reliable for chemicals, they may be harmful to microbial life. Living breathing organisms require packaging that allows the organisms to respire. Maybe you have seen the liquid bladders used in the soybean inoculant industry. Those specialized bladders allow for air exchange to keep the microbes alive as well as provide a barrier to prevent contaminants from entering the package. Another product concept that often appears better on paper than in practice is combining many different types of organisms in one container. While there are some organisms that may survive this procedure, many cannot. Product stewardship from manufacture to transportation to storage to use must all be monitored to maximize their efficacy.

The use of microbes in agriculture has been around for a very long time, and has been right there next to some of our greatest achievements. The advancement of Ag Microbials promises to be a valuable tool in applying next-generation practices through new science and technology.

Article provided by: Adam Kayser, Regional Field Agronomist, Pivot Bio

Published in the 2021 Spring Soybean Leader