Microbials - bridging the gap from high expectations to high performance
Translating what works in the lab to working in the field
For almost a century, synthetic crop protection and fertiliser products have provided farmers with productivity, consistency and peace of mind, enabling them to meet growing demand from the global population. At the same time, farmers have faced a range of factors beyond their control, from weather and soil conditions to the organic makeup and balance of the billions of naturally occurring microbes present in any given soil sample. Today, thanks to new innovations, they are increasingly looking to microbes as a way to help boost plant growth, increase resistance to drought, increase yields, address environmental concerns and reduce their reliance on synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.
Biological products have come to market with high hopes, performing well in controlled labs and greenhouses, and backed by years of research and small farm trials. But the in-field experience often proves to be much different as the products face the usual variables present in actual large-scale farm operations -- temperature, precipitation and soil type, among others. No surprise then that their results in the past have been inconsistent, leaving farmers skeptical about the ability of biologicals to perform as needed on their farms.
Despite this, the biologicals segment is growing. New innovations, supported by decades of research, and a growing demand for sustainable products, means that there are options available today that will help both farmers and the environment. Biologicals hold the potential to revolutionise the way we look at agriculture -- by making productivity and sustainability practices work hand in hand rather than at odds with each other -- and are predicted to soon become widely accepted as practical and standard on-farm solutions.
Encera N-fixing: how it works
Encera is a naturally-occurring, food-grade microbe that provides plants with the ability to fix their own nitrogen from the air, increasing yields up to 20% or replacing an average of 27% of their nitrogen needs in corn. When applied in-furrow or as a foliar application, Encera grows throughout the foliage and roots of the plant, metabolizing nitrogen from the atmosphere (which is 78% nitrogen). Growers can choose to use Encera with their regular fertility program for a yield boost or deliver same yields using less nitrogen.
The case for Encera: N all season long
One innovation, in particular, is creating considerable excitement. Naturally occurring N-fixing bacterial microbes have long existed in legumes like soybean crops, and more recent research has been conducted to isolate and improve the selective bacterial microbe that fixes N in non-legume crops, including corn.
Decades of extensive research and in-field test trials have focused on the N-fixing microbe Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus, or ‘Gd’ for short. Gd, now known commercially as Encera®️is a naturally-occurring, food-grade bacteria originally discovered and isolated from sugarcane in 1988 by Dr. Ted Cocking of the University of Nottingham. Since then, exhaustive studies and field trials have been conducted to confirm that the N-fixing microbe has the ability to quickly colonise cells, initially in the germinated seed and then into every cell of the plant as it grows -- from roots through foliage -- where it continually fixes N all season long.
Not all N-fixing bacteria are the same
The mode of N fixation used by Encera is just one way in which this new biological is different from Rhizobia, as well as other N-fixing biologicals for corn. Encera enters the seed at germination and establishes itself within the plant cells - growing with the plant, and allowing cells throughout the plant to fix their own N from the air, providing consistent N where and when it is most needed, including crucial growth and grain fill periods. The season-long N-fixation capability of Encera has been proven to reduce the need for applied N fertiliser by an average of 27% without impacting yield; when applied in addition to recommended N, trials have demonstrated between 5-13% and up to 20% yield increases in corn.
Encera is the only N-fixing bacteria to work from within the plant cells to fix N all season long
The graphic above shows the N dilemma of most crops: as the plants grow through their vegetative stages, N fertiliser is used by the crop, leached out of the soil and volatilised into the air. By the time the crop reaches its highest need for N - right around seed fill - the available N in the soil is near its lowest level. The situation is even worse if the crop is under stress (e.g. water stress, heat stress, weed pressure, pests) where translocation of N within the soil is less efficient because of the stress. Encera ensures a consistent source of N all season long, maximising yield potential, even under stressful growing conditions.
Performing Beyond the Greenhouse
There is, however, variability within the category between lab-based, controlled-condition N-fixing bacteria research results and actual in-crop, field-scale product performance and outcomes. The result has been cautious skepticism from corn growers about the efficacy and reliability of N-fixing biologicals. As new trial data on Encera becomes available, that skepticism is shifting to cautious optimism. There’s reason to be optimistic; one of the reasons Encera has performed well “beyond the greenhouse” is because of its unique formulation, which some of the world’s best formulation engineers have spent years perfecting. Encera is able to remain stable in solution, compatible with tank mixes, and robust enough to survive on the seed in the soil so it can enter the seed as it germinates. This unique capability represents a significant advancement for corn and other crops and makes it stand out from other biologicals - most of which are still in the greenhouse or at limited commercial scale.
The future is exciting for farmers looking to optimise their crop production without sacrificing their sustainability efforts. Indeed, the industry as a whole is giving signals of shifting in this direction. Innovations like Encera will help make that vision a reality for the next generation of growers and beyond.