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Farmers still cautious about biostimulants

Farmer Panel: Some benefits observed, but questions continue about if, when and where they produce consistent results

The concept of using biostimulants on crops isn’t new, but farmers remain cautious, realizing all that glitters may not be gold.

Western Canadian farmers aren’t exactly stampeding to crop supply retailers looking for biostimulant products that offer to improve crop production. That’s the view of at least a sampling of Prairie producers when asked for this September’s farmer panel on what they think about biological and biostimulant products applied to soil, seed or as foliar treatments.

Producers are aware of biostimulants, some have dabbled with a few, but others are still in that wait-and-see frame of mind concerning the industry that has an estimated world market today of about $2.5 billion in sales, which is expected to grow to $4 billion over the next four years.

Producers still have some big questions — do they work, is this snake oil, if this product is so great, why can’t you tell me what’s in it, or why don’t you give me a free sample and I’ll try some test strips on my farm?

Some producers are waiting for more independent, third-party product evaluations by government, college, university or applied research association researchers to provide objective feedback on how crops treated with biostimulants performed.

Ernie Nycholat, manager of agronomic services for Nutrien Ag Solutions in north-central Alberta, says in a blog that “biostimulants are substances or micro-organisms whose function, when applied to plants or the rhizosphere (soil zone directly surrounding the roots), is to stimulate natural processes to benefit nutrient uptake, nutrient use efficiency, tolerance to abiotic stress and/or crop quality, independently of its nutrient content.”

The terms “plant biostimulants” and “agricultural biostimulants” encompass a diverse group of product technologies, including bacterial or microbial inoculants, biochemical materials, amino acids, humic acids, fulvic acids, seaweed extracts and more.

Biostimulants and the larger category of agricultural biological products certainly aren’t a completely new idea. Going back to the 1980s, a new Saskatchewan company called Philom Bios introduced JumpStart, which was the application of a naturally occurring soil fungus that improved phosphate uptake, followed by TagTeam, which improved both nitrogen and phosphate uptake. And researchers and farmers have known for more than 100 years by inoculating pulse crop seeds with specific strains of rhizobia bacteria it helps those crops to convert nitrogen from the air in the soil around the roots to nitrogen the plants can use — nitrogen fixation.

The concept of using biostimulants on crops isn’t new, but farmers appear to be cautious, realizing all that glitters may not be gold. Here is what Grainews farmer panel members had to say about agricultural biostimulants.

Steve Snider

New Norway, Alta.

Steve Snider. photo: Supplied

As a certified organic grower in central Alberta for the past 30 years, Steve Snider has seen a lot of biological products come and go. He says it doesn’t matter if a farm operation is organic or conventional, the bottom line with the use of any crop input is there needs to be some return on investment.

“There are a lot of products that may have some effect but you need to be able to get your money back,” says Snider, who operates Little Red Hen Mills at New Norway, about 20 kilometres south of Camrose.

“The challenge for farmers as well as the marketers of these products is the variability of the year. If you apply a product during a dry growing season, there is a good chance you’re not going to get much response. There may or may not be some snake oils out there, but I think the bigger thing is some products work with certain soils and some don’t. So, a lot depends on the soil biology on each individual farm.”

Snider says he has tried different products over the years and found some work and some don’t on his farm. The first hurdle with any new product for his operation is it has to meet certified organic standards, which means the manufacturer has to reveal their formulations, “and that eliminates a lot of products right there,” he says.

“The other default position I have with new products is to tell the salesperson, ‘If you believe in your product, give me a sample to try,” he says. “And some of them will do that. And if I find it is an effective product, I don’t mind saying so.”

Snider says he has had the most consistent results by using seaweed products as a seed treatment. It helps with fast and even crop emergence and root development.

“The key with any product and particularly biologicals is to find something that works on your farm,” he says. “Again, there is so much variability with soil types and soil biology on each farm that some products may work and some won’t. And it also helps to talk to other producers to find out if they use products that work for them.”

Greg Stamp

Enchant, Alta.

Greg Stamp. photo: Supplied

Southern Alberta farmer Greg Stamp considers himself one of the sceptics when it comes to biostimulant products that claim to benefit crop production.

Stamp, who is part of the family-run Stamp Seeds at Enchant, north of Lethbridge, says he has tried some products over the years but generally never saw any yield improvement.

“And sometimes you hear another farmer say they used a product and they sort of believe in it, they say it works, but then when you ask a bit further they rarely leave any check strips,” says Stamp. “They never really did any actual testing or comparison.”

Stamp says they often do on-farm trials on their farm with treated versus untreated test strips to evaluate any type of product, which gives them some idea, “but even that is only a guide, it isn’t very scientific.”

Stamp figures there is probably room to improve crop yields just by fine tuning their existing production practices — more balanced fertility or adjusting seeding rates — “and maybe there are some soils on the farm that could just benefit from an application of manure,” he adds.

Even if a biostimulant product improves root development as claimed, he wonders if that actually translates into improved yield or yield stability. “How consistent are the results?” he asks.

Stamp is also leery about the idea of changing production practices and eliminating use of crop protection products such as seed treatments in favour of a so-called natural “moose juice.”

“People resist the idea of using chemical seed treatments and they might luck out and get away with it for a year or two, but what happens when the crop is infected with bunt or smut or flea beetles or wireworm?” he says. “Is whatever they are doing going to protect their crop from those pests?”

Charles Schimdt

Davidson, Sask.

Charles Schmidt. photo: Supplied

Charles Schmidt says he believes there is a role for biostimulant products in crop production, but a well-balanced fertility program is important as well.

Schmidt, who produces hard red spring wheat, peas and canola near Davidson, Sask., which is about halfway between Regina and Saskatoon, says crops were challenged during a dry growing season, so it’s not always obvious if treatments make a difference or not.

For the 2021 growing season, Schmidt applied humic acid to the seed of all crops. “It is a treatment that works with the natural biology in the soil to improve root development,” he says. “Even in a dry year, or especially in a dry year, I believe it made a real difference. Whether I will see that difference on the yield monitor this year I don’t know. But it is definitely something I will keep trying.”

Along with humic acid, he used a couple of ATP Nutrition products to improve nutrient levels and crop performance this past growing season.

“I used a phosphate product that I applied during the herbicide application,” says Schmidt. “Particularly with something like Viper herbicide on peas, it can be a bit hard on the crop but if I top dress with the phosphate then it helps to minimize any setback. I also applied it on some test strips in the canola and wheat, and hopefully I’ll be able to see a difference at harvest.”

Schmidt also applied an ATP potassium top dress product particularly to peas and canola as those crops were about to set seed.

“On both crops I noticed the bottom leaves were turning yellow, which is a sign that the top of the plants are scavenging potassium from the lower leaves,” he says. He applied the potassium top dress with about 15 gallons of water per acre.

“I applied that top dress and it made an immediate difference,” he says. “The plants greened up overnight. If we’d had rain, the roots could have drawn potassium from the soil, but it was just too dry. The treatment is only effective for about a couple of weeks, but it gives the plants time to produce seed pods.”

Schmidt says good root development and a proper well-balanced fertility program is needed for optimum production, with top dressing of nutrients as an option as needed. “With the potassium top dress, for example, if it produces a five per cent increase in yield, which may be two to four bushels, it more than pays for the $10 per acre treatment.”

Corey Loessin

Radisson, Sask.

Corey Loessin. photo: Supplied

Corey Loessin, who produces grains, oilseeds and pulse crops near Radisson, Sask., northwest of Saskatoon, says he’s waiting for more independent research on biostimulants before he gets “excited” about trying the products.

“My general sense is that many of these product claims have been oversold by quite a margin,” says Loessin. “They make a lot of claims and they have anecdotal results, but they don’t have replicated research trials to support claims of improved yield or quality.”

He says he is waiting for independent research from a university, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), provincial government or other independent organization before he’ll pay them much attention.

“I think another tell is that different companies make a number of claims, but if you ask them to provide product for a free trial they are not interested,” says Loessin. “So how confident are you in your product if you won’t even make it available for research trials?”

Loessin says there are different areas of the agriculture industry that make some pretty wild claims with little to back them up. He says changes in soil quality and water holding capacity, for example, don’t happen overnight.

“We’ve had 30 years of zero-till farming and it has helped to improve soil quality but it takes a long time,” he says. “A company comes along with a product that claims it will eliminate drought stress. Well, the only thing that relieves drought stress is water. Farming practices such as regenerative agriculture and cover crops, for example, have their benefits but they aren’t going to change soil quality in a couple of seasons.”

Fred Greig

Reston, Man.

Fred Greig. photo: Supplied

In southwest Manitoba, Fred Greig says he is willing to try some products to see if they make a difference. As a board member of the Manitoba Crop Alliance, he does try to do some field-scale trials on his farm near Reston, not only for his own benefit but hopefully the information helps other producers.

“Over the years, I think some of the earlier products were basically just micronutrients,” says Greig. “But in more recent years, there have been more biological products and I believe there are some good ones, but they tend to get lumped in with products that aren’t that great and that tends to make a lot of growers hesitant. If members of the crop alliance and other organizations can do some on-farm research, hopefully that helps people sort things out.”

For instance, Greig says he has seen good results from the Yield+ product, which improves phosphorous availability and is produced by the Manitoba company XiteBio Technologies.

Yield+ is a biological inoculant that can be tank-mixed with a herbicide application for the first pass at the zero- to six-leaf stage or applied in-furrow. Greig has used the product with soybeans and canola. However, XiteBio now has a granular formulation he is hoping to use with a wider range of crops.

Yield+ is a product based on a naturally occurring PGPR (plant growth promoting rhizobacteria) platform, Bacillus firmus, which can improve phosphorus availability and increase yields in oilseeds, cereals, legumes and tuber crops.

On the other hand, some work was done last year with a compost tea-type product that didn’t produce any obvious results. “I know one year of test results isn’t necessarily an indicator, but I think I might be further ahead to increase fertilizer rates, if I want to increase yields,” he says.

Greig says another measure of what products can be trusted depends on the willingness of the company to supply a product for testing. “If they won’t make products available to the crop alliance or our regional diversification centres, or they won’t participate in any trials at all, I think that tells you something too.”

Kendall Heise

Beulah, Man.

Kendall Heise. photo: Supplied

Kendall Heise, who farms in the west-central area of Manitoba, north of the Trans-Canada Highway, says he is in the “wait-and-see camp” when it comes to applying any biostimulants to grains, oilseeds and pulse crops on his farm in the Beulah area.

“I don’t doubt they can measure some responses in a controlled research environment, but I would like to see what these products do on a field-scale level,” says Heise. “I have gone the route of trying some of the fertility-enhancing products over the years and I haven’t seen much benefit, so with the biostimulants, I will wait and see.

“Actually, I am hoping a neighbour will do a field-scale trial and then I can learn from them,” he laughs.

Heise says he would like to see the results of field-scale trials along with independent research from organizations such as AAFC or a university.

“Sometimes when crop prices move toward the high side, we tend to see more of these products come along,” he says. “It would be good to see some research that helps sort out which products have the most potential and then I would be inclined to try some trials of my own. I have done field-scale trials over the years and they take a fair bit of work.

“Maybe it has to do with my age, but I have seen a lot of products come and go over the years.”

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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