Iowa soybean farmer

(Photo: Iowa Soybean Association / Joclyn Bushman)

Are biologicals the future of farming?

April 30, 2024 | Kriss Nelson

The use of agricultural biologicals is growing — and fast. The agricultural biological market size is anticipated to reach $27.9 billion by 2028, up from $14.6 billion in 2023, according to MarketsandMarkets, a competitive intelligence and market research firm.

Although biologicals are nothing new to the agricultural industry, there are still many unknowns. The Iowa Soybean Association’s (ISA) Research Center for Farming Innovation (RCFI) is working to bring on-farm trial results to farmers, but there is a lot of work to be done.

ISA Farmer Member Brent Bierbaum has been working for five years to find a space on his farm near Griswold for biologicals.

“I like the concept, but I am not totally sold on the outcome yet,” says Bierbaum. “That is why I am still experimenting with different products, methods and placements.”

Defining biologicals

The ag-retail industry has grouped biologicals into three categories: biofertilizers, biostimulants and biopesticides.

ISA Research Agronomist Drew Clemmensen says RCFI has put a focus on researching biofertilizers, which are products that help with nutrient usage and effectiveness.

“Biologicals will never 100% replace commercial fertilizers,” says Clemmensen. “But, I think there is an opportunity for biologicals to fit in conjunction with lowering nitrogen and phosphorus inputs.”

Biologicals are available in many forms, such as in-furrow applications, seed treatments and foliar sprays.

On-farm trials

RCFI began researching biologicals through on-farm trials nearly eight years ago as ISA farmer members became increasingly interested in them.

Research is centered around nutrient uptake, specifically phosphorus and nitrogen. Could biologicals help reduce the assumed over-application of these commercial fertilizers?

“Introducing these biologicals is supposed to help plant roots absorb those nutrients better. However, across all our trials, taking into account the management variables that come into play with those trials, we have not seen anything that stands out as to having any kind of significance to a yield advantage,” says Clemmensen, noting there are a lot of unknowns and research to be done.

One key to finding positive results with using biologicals could be a good management system already in place.

“These (biologicals) are not key nutrient products that we are using to grow our crops,” Clemmensen says. “If those core nutrients aren’t there, don’t expect these products to bail you out or show you any kind of return.”

For example, if a biofertilizer is not showing a positive return on investment, it could mean that field already has ample nutrients available to the plant. Farmers might see some advantages to using biologicals in tougher environments that struggle to make nutrients available to the plant, Clemmensen notes.

“This may be an area where those products are going to be effective or at least offer a return on your investment,” Clemmensen says.

Bierbaum has been experimenting with an in-furrow product with the hopes of increasing the nitrogen uptake of the corn plant. He has also used foliar and soil applications of a biological on both soybeans and corn.

While he has seen some good returns using biologicals, results have not been consistent.

“It’s been a mixed bag. Some years, we see good responses, but not every year,” says Bierbaum. “I would like to be able to reduce our applications of phosphorous and nitrogen — as the products claim — but we’re not there yet. I am not saying it doesn’t (provide these benefits). I am saying it has been up and down for us.”

Do biologicals have a place on your farm?

With thousands of biological products available, how does one choose where to start?

“There are a lot of products out there, and you have to sort through what is relevant and what is snake oil,” says Bierbaum, adding he relies on university and ISA research. “ISA can replicate more than I can on my farm; I can only do so much.”

Begin sorting through products by setting a goal.

“Are you trying to decompose residue? Are you trying to reduce your reliance on commercial fertilizers? Are you trying to build organic matter in your soil? Start with a goal and then explore those products that touch those components,” says Clemmensen. “Then consider the application. Are you set up to apply these products? What already fits into your system that you can easily add them to?”

Once you have chosen a product, try a replicated strip trial on your farm. ISA agronomists can help fine-tune the creation of a trial and assist with the analysis to give a farmer the best answer possible.

“Create your own strips. It is the best way to get an honest evaluation,” Clemmensen says. “If you are planning on doing the whole field, it might mean leaving strips untreated in a couple of different places in the field. If you are skeptical about the product, only have two or three strips using the product.”

Also, try adjusting nutrient rates and use multiple rates in the field. Look at those fields that have lower yield potential and in fields where nitrogen or phosphorus fertilizers are applied at various rates to understand if these products add value and when these products respond to provide a return on investment, Clemmensen advises.

“If you put a product out there in a strip and the only variable you have is that product, adjusting nutrient rates could help you determine in the end if the product worked or did not work,” says Clemmensen.

Clemmensen feels biologicals are here to stay; it is just finding a way for them to fit into your system. One hypothesis he has is that macronutrients and micronutrients must be well established in your soil for the biologicals to do their job.

“I think long term, there is a fit for biologicals on our farms,” says Clemmensen. “But I don’t think we fully understand how they work and what their capabilities are yet.”