Let’s call it the agronomic final frontier — the root zone. Soil isn’t just what you stick seed in. It’s a living biosphere complete with good guys, bad guys, free loaders and blue-collar workers. As farmers, your job is to encourage the good guys and allow those workers to do their jobs. Next generation inoculants are designed to do just such a thing.
Gerry Wilson runs an organic farm 10 miles northwest of Brandon, Man. He came across Premier Tech Biotechnologies’s Myke Pro mycorrhizae inoculant for use on his garden tomatoes and it worked so well he decided to try it on his field crops. Mycorrhizae are naturally-occurring soil fungi that form filaments around and inside plant roots, helping the plant draw water and nutrients from the surrounding soil zone.
Being an organic farmer, Wilson can’t apply commercial phosphate fertilizer. Unlike nitrogen, which is highly mobile in the soil, phosphorus gets tied up on soil particles and mineralizes slowly, making it harder to meet a growing crop’s phosphorus needs. Myke Pro is a naturally occurring mycorrhizae that, once colonized on a plant’s root system, helps to extract P from the soil.
Since using Myke Pro, Wilson has seen some pretty amazing differences between fields, and he’s always left a check strip to confirm the differences. “I’m being conservative when I say I see a 15 per cent yield bump in my oats,” he says. With flax, he’s seen yields increased by as much as 30 per cent, however he usually counts on between eight and 15 per cent. He now uses Myke Pro on oats, flax, peas, alfalfa and barley every year.
CONVENTIONAL CROPS BENEFIT, TOO
The advantage to an organic grower is perhaps more easily accepted because they can’t use synthetic fertilizer, but several conventional growers are seeing similar results — allowing them to trim back on phosphorus application.
Stanley Bialas farms near Onanole, Man., and has been using Myke Pro for five years. He farms wheat, canola, flax, oats and alfalfa and runs some cattle. Bialas uses Myke Pro on all crops except canola. His alfalfa field establishment and nodulation have been significantly improved since using Myke Pro, he says. He started by first running trials on wheat, flax and hay and was impressed by what he saw.
Bialas says that Myke Pro is easy to use, as it mixes right in with the seed. He’s gone so far as to reduce his applied phosphorus by 50 per cent and still maintained yields. “I still leave test strips and compare my full rate of phosphorus to half rate with Myke Pro,” he says. He’s seen no difference between the two applications, but one certainly costs less. He estimates it costs him roughly $16 per acre to apply the product, but he saves $40 or more an acre in fertilizer.
“Quality doesn’t suffer either,” Bialas says. “In 2008, we had wheat come off in October and November that was still a No. 2 with high protein and it only had a half rate of fertilizer.” These results aren’t uncommon, he says.
MYCORRHIZAE INOCULANT NOT NEW
The flower and landscape industry has enjoyed the use of mycorrhizae inoculants for years, says Atul Nayyar, technical sale advisor for Premier Tech, but it’s only been the past four or five years that the product has been used in commercial agriculture.
And while Nayyar is a firm believer in the product’s ability to save on fertilizer, he’s hesitant to suggest a 50 per cent phosphorus reduction in the first year. “We always recommend a soil test before you begin,” Nayyar says. “Always leave a test strip too or you won’t be able to accurately gauge the effect Myke Pro has. We recommend cutting your planned phosphorus application rate slowly, say by 10 per cent the first year, and compare that to the check strips of full application rate.”
“The best idea is to soil test often so you know what your soil is providing and to get a good base nutrient level,” Nayyar says. Reduce your phosphorus application and follow the results year over year. “Different soils and weather will affect how well the mycorrhizae colonize. For example, 2009 wasn’t a good year in terms of weather — too cold, variable moisture — making it a tough year for phosphorus mineralization and mycorrhizae colonization.” Bialas agrees, saying that although he’s been very happy with Myke Pro each year, this past year was a tough one. “Nodulation was down in my younger alfalfa stands. The soil was colder than average in July, but the crops still turned out OK,” he says.
Myke Pro is available as a seed coating or a granular to be placed in the furrow or as a side-dress application. Any seed treated with Myke Pro should be seeded within 12 hours.
CANOLA DROPS MYCORRHIZAE COUNTS
Understanding soil microflora dynamics can help boost mycorrhizae numbers even without the use of Premier Tech’s inoculant, says Marcia Monreal, research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada based at Brandon, Man. She carried out some of the earlier research into Myke Pro’s effectiveness on field crops. Her findings suggest that Myke Pro does significantly increase mycorrhizae colonization of plant root systems, although certain crops are more responsive to mycorrhizae colonization. Flax, lentils and wheat all increase colonization of mycorrhizae, but all brassica crops including canola will decrease numbers. The weather and soil type play a role in natural colonization and the effectiveness of mycorrhizae inoculation. Tillage practices may destroy the soil filaments formed by the fungi in the soil and therefore decrease root colonization of crops.
“There have been no long-term studies into scaling back phosphorus application and using Myke Pro,” Monreal says. In the meantime, while more detailed studies take place, she recommends soil testing often, leaving a test strip and monitoring yields to determine its effectiveness and to maintain adequate levels of phosphorus in the soil.
Lyndsey Smith is a Grainews field editor in Lumsden, Sask. Email her at [email protected]