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Betting on the biological business

Monsanto is investing big in bacteria, fungi and other organisms that benefit crops

Wondering where the future is for ag inputs? Monsanto is banking on biologicals, company researchers told reporters during a media event earlier this year.

Biologicals include bacteria, fungi and other organisms that benefit the crop by controlling pests or helping roots access nutrients. For example, soybean and pulse growers will be quite familiar with inoculants that help crops fix nitrogen.

Dr. Ryan Bartlett leads Monsanto’s commercial field testing program for seed treatment and BioAg products. Bartlett told reporters the sales opportunities in biologicals are “fairly exponential from today.”

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Bartlett pegged current biological use at 65 million acres globally. By 2025, Monsanto hopes to move that number “closer to the 500 million acre mark,” Bartlett said.

Much of Monsanto’s biologicals strategies hinges on its partnership with Novozymes. The business relationship, called the BioAg Alliance, sees each company maintaining its own research pipeline, Bartlett explained.

Both companies are “front-loading” that pipeline, Bartlett said, to create “transformational, industry-leading products,” Bartlett said. That means everything from nematode-destroying biocontrols to yield-enhancers.

A new yield-boosting corn inoculant will be the “first big blockbuster” to come out of the BioAg Alliance*, Bartlett said. Microbials don’t tend to be stable enough to be applied as seed treatments in corn manufacturing facilities, Bartlett said. But Enhanced can be applied as a seed treatment at corn manufacturing facilities, and remains viable on the seed for several months.

Bartlett said they can use what they’ve learned about the corn inoculant for canola. “Or translate that to other crops like peas and lentils, which are obviously really important here in Canada.”

The BioAg Alliance puts new biologicals through several years of field testing before releasing them on the market, Bartlett said.

“We’ve shown that through the robust field trial program we have, we’re able to really filter out year over year those things that perform broadacre as well as that perform consistently in different environments and in different climates,” Bartlett said.

Asked whether some biologicals prefer certain soil types, Bartlett said they are “vigorously trying to understand that” for all their products.

The BioAg Alliance sometimes finds biologicals used in vegetables that also work in row crops. But Bartlett said they focus on finding unique microbes that haven’t been tested.

This requires what Jon Treloar calls “bio-prospectors.”

“Both groups — Monsanto and Novozymes — have folks that go out into forests and native pastures and cropland and take soil samples and find these microbes,” said Treloar.

Biologicals in Western Canada

Treloar is a technical agronomist with Monsanto, based out of Saskatoon. He heads up Monsanto’s field testing program for biologicals.

The Canadian field testing program takes products that are further down the research pipeline. Part of that program includes small plot trials. Each small plot trial is replicated six times at each location, Treloar said.

But, Treloar said, producers really like to see field-scale trials, with data from their areas.

So Monsanto launched field scale trials with cooperating farmers to test new microbial products. Plots are 40 acres or more, Treloar said. The program, branded BioAdvantage Trials (BAT), tests products that aren’t quite on the market yet. The field programs yield data to back up product claims when they’re ready to launch products, Treloar explained

Monsanto also hires summer students to work with producers during the trials. The summer students take farmers into the fields, dig up pea and soybean plants, look at the roots, and explain what the products are doing, Treloar said.

“You might not see much above the ground. It’s not until you dig the plant and look at those root systems.”

Treloar also tests products that are already on the market. For example, he ran trials for TagTeam, comparing its performance to a competitor product. That trial included 24 locations — 12 on peas, and 12 on lentils.

TagTeam pea treatments yielded higher than the competitor 75 per cent of the time. TagTeam’s win rate on lentils was 92 per cent, he added.

Treloar noted that TagTeam lost on some of those trials. “But we publish that as well.”

New products coming down the pipe

Western Canadian farmers can look for new biologicals in the next few years. This year Treloar will be testing a new seed inoculant, branded QuickRoots, in his field-scale trials on wheat.

QuickRoots “enhances nutrient availability” of phosphorus and other organic nutrients, Treloar said.

“It’s pretty rock star, to be honest. From what I’ve seen in my field program, I’m excited about it.”

The inoculant is already registered, and Monsanto will be selling limited amounts in 2016. They’ve targeted 2017 for a big launch.

QuickRoots was originally a Novozymes product. “The technology comes out of South Dakota. And it’s got quite a following, kind of through the Hefty brothers network,” Treloar said. The Hefty brothers have an agronomy radio program called Ag PhD.

By 2017, Enhanced will be in Treloar’s BAT program. Treloar said he’ll be testing the new inoculant on wheat and canola. Enhanced is already in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s approval queue.

“As an industry, we definitely see this (biologicals) as revolutionary because it’s the opportunity to take advantage of the inputs growers are already utilizing,” said Bartlett.

For a video interview with Jon Treloar, click here.


On big data

Biologicals aren’t the only area where Monsanto is investing. Ryan Bartlett, who leads the company’s commercial field testing, said they’re also trying to understand how to use prescriptive farming.

To that end, Monsanto acquired the Climate Corporation, a weather data company based out of San Francisco. Bartlett explained they want to understand how to take weather data, soil data, and other “components that go into what makes a crop yield and understand how we better manage a crop up front.”

The “long-range dream” is to use all the data collected from a grower’s field to alert growers to developing disease problems, such as sudden death syndrome in soybeans, Bartlett said. If farmers confirmed early disease symptoms through scouting, they could then apply a biological, he added.

“We’re not there today, but we’d really like to start working towards that,” said Bartlett.

That approach isn’t about just selling a biological product to drive DEKALB germplasm, Bartlett said. It’s about selling a system to take advantage of synergies, he said.

That means making sure that any products that go into a bag of seed work together, so the grower benefits from each component, he added.

 

*In an earlier version of this story, the name of this new inoculant was incorrectly stated as “Enhanced.” Grainews regrets the error.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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