Biological Inputs - A Look at the Opportunity

Feb 02, 2023

Emerging Corn

Biology, Biologicals, & Carbon

It seems like each winter season has a theme. When those of us in agriculture take a break from the busy tasks that occupy our growing season, our thoughts go to planning, evaluating, and trying to determine what is next. When we do this collectively as a group, there is always a theme that floats to the top as the preeminent concern of this moment. In the past the topics that often come to mind are machinery, fertilizer, technology, traits, seeds, and ethanol. This Winter, my topic of most concern is unquestionably about biology, biologicals, and carbon. 

Right now, we are living in an absolute deluge of information about soil health, soil biology, and the carbon cycle. It is a hot topic in every magazine, farm paper, and at every conference we attend. The message is that with technology we should be able to control it , modify it, change it, and use it to suit our purposes. Our purpose, of course being to improve crop production. And more importantly, to profit from it. 

Today, we have companies capable of testing our soil for its biological components, diseases, and fungi. We have platforms designed to test and record soil health indicators to help guide management decisions, as well as prove carbon sequestration that can later be marketed to others. There are companies offering new high performance inoculants for traditionally inoculated crops such as soybeans and alfalfa, as well as brand new organisms we can place on the seeds of cereal crops that we traditionally haven’t included. Now there are multiple ways to place bacteria in a furrow or on a plant to create more available nitrogen for crops that demand it, as well as multiple ways of introducing additional microorganisms into the soil system that improve nutrient availability and assist plant uptake. We also can control certain pathogens by using pathogens against them. There seems to be biological solutions to every problem that we currently have in agriculture. 

The information space is crowded with people and companies that want to help us. Depending on where  you receive your information, it seems like many have this all figured out and it is just a matter of picking a product or service to run with. Picking one expert source however, is not so simple. The risk is that we are moving so fast and into territory that is so new, that we become overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices that we are presented with. 

Herein lies the problem: we now have hundreds of potential solutions to problems that we may or may not even have. These products work in unique ways, on totally different crops, and often times have very specific use requirements. Many of the products available to the market come with years of research and sound science behind them. Conversely, there are likely an equal number of them that do not have the same merit. 

Which brings me to my main point: evaluate. One of the main tenets of a good agronomist is that they should be unendingly curious and focused on breaking down the complex problems of farming into smaller management decisions. Evaluating biological inputs requires exactly that. My first suggestion is to work with an agronomist you trust to help you evaluate these things. Secondly, try to use some sort of decision framework when comparing potential solutions. It will help anyone make a more objective and less emotional decision. Make sure any potential product or service can “check every box.” If anything under consideration cannot give you enough information to make an informed decision, it may be something you need to think twice about using. “Just use it, it works” doesn’t cut it anymore.

Finally, I am going to call for plots. The entire Premier agronomy team is dedicated to discovery and knowledge. We are invested in bringing the right products to market, with data to back those decisions up. We can assist with plot design and potential product ideas. We have the resources to help get plots in the ground and the tools to evaluate it the whole season, not just at harvest. The best thing we can do right now is begin planning. Take stock this winter. Decide if we want to work on biostimulation for yield or quality, biological nitrogen fixation, or disease control. The best time to plan for this is now… not after the weather breaks and we need to be in the field. 

There is no value if we ignore or dismiss the entire space because it is new. There is also no one today with all the right answers. While there is merit to the solutions being brought forward, it will take testing, evaluation, and communication to dig through all the options until we find the ones that work. Through good work like this, we can start to make sense of a crowded marketplace and determine which pieces should move forward from here. Contact your local Premier agronomist today to get the conversation on biological inputs started.


                 Dan West



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