BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — The biological crop protection market has an annual growth rate of about 17%, but skepticism about the products’ value remains.

Samantha Schmidgall, Growmark FS sales agronomist, broke down the complex sector of biologicals in recent ILSoyAdvisor podcast by the Illinois Soybean Association.

Biologicals basically fall into four main categories — bio-stimulant, bio-pesticides, bio-fertilizers and plant growth hormones.

Bio-stimulants stimulate plant growth and can be applied to the seed treatment for early growth or applied later in the plant development. Bio-pesticides are naturally occurring substances that control pests by non-toxic mechanisms.

Biochemical pesticides include substances that interfere with mating, such as insect sex pheromones, as well as various scented plant extracts that attract insect pests to traps. Poncho/VOTiVO is one example that uses a biological mode of action with a unique bacteria strain that protects the roots from soybean cyst nematodes.

Bio-fertilizer can be applied to seed or soil and often is referred to as a soil amendment or soil enhancement. Plant growth hormones include gibberellins, auxins and ethylene and help plants overcome any limitations in productivity, increases plant growth and set more flowers and pods.

Schmidgall got deeper into the biological realm in a Q&A:

Can a biological be synthetically produced?

Yes, they can. The Biological Products Industry Alliance actually classifies a biological as any product from a natural substance or a synthetic product that’s manufactured to mimic a natural substance. So, there are plenty of products out there that could be classified as a biological.

What’s the difference between a plant-based and soil-based biological?

There are several different ways products can be classified based on how they’re made. When we looked at a plant-based biological, diving down to what the original plant-based biological, those products are amino acid-based. These products are applied directly to the plants through deriving an initial amino acid from a plant.

A soil-based biological are typically going to be fulvic acid. When we look at soil organic matter, that powers humic acid which is made of both humic and fulvic acid. The fulvic acid is really what’s doing the hard work of the soil-based biological. Anything that’s listed a fulvic acid would be a soil-based biological.

There products often work best when they are applied directly to the soil such as like a pop-up or starter fertilizer next to the seed.

Relative to the plant-based versus soil-based biologicals, Acceleron B-200 is a product that’s really widely used in addition to fungicide and insecticide.

A lot of times it’s something growers see on their seed tags that they don’t even know is in their soybeans. That is actually a plant-derived flavonoid.

However, that flavonoid attracts and stimulates beneficial microbes in the soil which promotes nodulation and nitrogen fixation. So, it increases nutrient availability and uptake for the soybean plant. So, that’s an example of something that is plant-derived, however it is increasing activity in the soil.

It can get a little confusing when we’re looking at a plant-based biological versus a soil-based biological when we’re looking at what these products are comprised of versus what the goal of the product is to do.

Why would a grower make an investment in a biological product? How does it benefit the grower to use these products?

Growers should look at their goals when they want to get into the biological space. There are a lot of different ways that we can do that.

Targeting whether they’re looking at increasing nodulation on their soybeans, increasing flowering and pod-set especially in a year like this one where it looks like we’re going to have a little bit shorter growing season. I think there could be a big increase in biological products.

As well as decreasing stress, whether they have a field that’s continually stressed year after year or increasing fertilizer uptake. Maybe a field that has poor cation exchange or low organic matter, how can we make the soybeans plant work to maximize everything that we’re putting down into the soil.

So, really we’re just looking at what the grower’s goal is to increase their yield and how we can select a product or a sector of the biological space to best fit their needs.

How can a grower determine that a product actually works?

There are so many products in this space right now. I would encourage growers to make sure they’re working with a company that has credibility.

Data is huge and being able to work with a company that’s providing you yield data, trial information on the product that you are looking at putting on is step number one.

A good way for a grower to find out if a company has credentials in this space is look at the Biological Products Industry Alliance. Most major suppliers are part of this group.

They are providing products to BPIA to be looked at through the universities that they work with, as well as the U.S. and Canadian government groups.

What are you seeing out there in the fields that are working?

I think that the seed treatment space has really taken off in the last five to ten years. Using a seed treatment biological is really easy to add to your current fungicide/insecticide seed treatment program.

Oftentimes we find when we pair that biological with a stressed acre it’s triggering something in the plant to either have better fertilizer uptake or have less stress or put on more pods in those fields that we continue to see challenges year after year. That’s where we’re seeing the biggest success across my area.

Another place that we are seeing success is using some seed box applied biologicals, as well. Instead of applying directly with the fungicide/insecticide seed treatment, this would be something that you would add into your box instead of your traditional graphite or talc that’s providing an inoculant, as well.

That would be like SabrEx or you can add QuickRoots to your planter box for soybeans, and we’re seeing good yield increases and some visual response from those products.

If you’re going to advise a grower to invest in a biological, is the seed treatment category the top option that would be the easiest to apply and offer the greatest return on investment or what would that category be?

I’d say the seed treatment sector would be the first one that I would look at. No. 1, it’s the easiest to incorporate into your operation, whether you’re having it upstream applied with fungicide/insecticide or it’s something you’re putting in an inductor on your seed tender to get out into the field an make sure things are evenly distributed.

Return-on-investment is a little bit touchy when it comes to biologicals. So, when we look at the data of some of these products, the main thing I advice my growers to do is to look at larger scale acre trials, say something like ten acres or more versus a small strip trial where companies are looking at just an acre or two treated with product versus untreated.

We want to make sure that when we’re using these biological products that we’re expanding across variability in the soils because that’s where they’re really going to shine, when they’re helping the soybeans perform more uniformly over a variable environment.

Tom C. Doran can be reached at 815-780-7894 or tdoran@agrinews-pubs.com. Follow him on Twitter at: @AgNews_Doran.

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