Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What Used to Be True

I am a science fiction fan. I have been all my life and will probably die a fan. Often some words of wisdom can come from a sci-fi movie that makes sense in today’s world. In the movie Men in Black, Tommy Lee Jones told Will Smith something like the following: Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the earth was the center of the universe, five hundred years ago, everybody knew the earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet, imagine what you will know tomorrow.

Welcome to the world of production agriculture.

When I started my career in 1976, it was all about fertilizer and chemicals. We really didn’t know exactly how they worked but they did work. Then came Precision Ag. This was going to revolutionize farming by applying the proper nutrients at the correct location in a field. From the early 1980s to the present, it is estimated that the majority of fertilizer and chemical dealers who do custom chemical application use some sort of precision application methods. Actual farmer driven acceptance and use has lagged behind mostly because of cost.

Next came Biotech and GMO. Biotech was basically using biological organisms to help the plant defend itself from insects. One organism was used back then and now multiple insect and disease preventing bacteria and fungi are added to crop seeds driving the cost through the roof. But now we are starting to see resistance in some parts of the country.

GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are the current latest and greatest. They have been around for a long time starting with Roundup Ready corn which was first commercialized in 1998. Since then we have added sugar beets, alfalfa, and canola to the list. This is all about getting good weed control economically with one product. What they forgot, again, was a term called resistance. So many weeds across the country are resistant to Roundup that the initial low-cost solution is becoming very expensive.

So goes the world of production ag. What we know at one time to be the latest and greatest changes very fast because we work in an ever changing environment. Soils, insects, diseases, and weeds are always changing. They were here before we were and they will still be here when we are gone.

The lesson for today: don’t get too comfortable with all you know today. Remember there will be a lot more to learn tomorrow.

Friday, July 26, 2013


I’ve been following this idea of enhancing the activity of fungicides. Or it could be described as enhancing the target pathogen’s sensitivity to fungicides. I have noticed that there is similar research and information in both the agricultural arena as well as human health. The results are the same. This is one of those true “synergy” or “win-win” scenarios. When using a tool like chemosensitization – proper math goes right out the window. One plus one no longer equals two – now we get more.

The basic idea is to use lower risk materials with antifungal properties along with conventional fungicides.  What was unexpected in the research was how well this approach worked. Each product on its own has activity on the pathogen. When put together the pathogen control was much higher than the control achieved with either product alone (and higher than the separate applications added together). Control has been so good that the researchers were able to use lower rates of the fungicides and still achieve good control. With the cost of today’s fungicides I think it would be easy to achieve a favorable ROI using this chemosensitization approach.

I used the words lower risk earlier and I want to elaborate on what I meant. The phrase “lower risk” applies for multiple reasons. Safety – Lower risk refers to the mode of action of the products. They are much safer for people and the environment. Resistance danger - The materials being used to achieve chemosensitization are essential oils, plant compounds, and microbial exudates. Materials with these types of origins, having evolved as parts of plant and microbial defense mechanisms, carry a lower risk of a pathogen developing resistance. Especially when compared to resistance buildup to chemical fungicides.

One compound that consistently shows up in research is thymol (2-isopropyl-5-methylphenol). I have run across thymol in both human health research and plant pathology work. The names of some of the antifungal medicines that thymol was able to make more effective in the human health realm end in “…azole” just like many of our crop fungicides. The thymol-azole combination completely stopped fungal growth at rates lower than when an azole medicine is used by itself. The research even tested the combo against organisms already resistant to the medicines. Thymol made the organism susceptible to the fungicide again.

Thymol seems to have most of its action on cell walls and cell membranes.  The azole drugs and fungicides also have activity on cell walls and membranes which may be why they work so good together. 

Our bio-pesticide products from Huma Gro® utilize thymol as a major component. For soil use there is ProMax™ which also gives us a bio-fumigant action. For foliar use we have Proud3® with local systemic activity and residual control that is rare for an organic product. Here is a way to maximize your fungicide dollar, reduce application rates, and use an inexpensive lower risk product that is geared toward supporting plant health as well as harassing the pathogen and making it easier to control.
Research examples: Quadris® (azoxystrobin) and thymol together had enhanced activity on Bipolaris sorokiniana, Phoma glomerata, Alternaria sp., and Stagonospora nodorum.
Dividend® (difenoconazole) and thymol showed enhanced activity on Bipolaris sorokiniana, and Stagonospora nodorum.
Folicur® (tebuconazole) and thymol showed enhanced activity on Alternaria alternata.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Striving Towards Zero

I was talking to a farm manager friend about the use of fumigants and other pesticides in today’s modern production farming. When the topic of fumigants came up, he mentioned that using the same amount of the same material has been giving increasingly less results over the past 20 years. The question comes up as to why; the answer is resistance.

Fumigation works by killing a targeted pathogen in the soil. But, no matter what the product is, you never kill all of the pathogens. The pathogens that are left are naturally resistant to the chemical compound used so they survive. Look at it as killing 80 out of 100 and the 20 left are the strongest, baddest, bad boys on the block. They reproduce faster so the next time you fumigate you only kill 70% with 30% stronger yet. You can see that over time you can have a population of almost super bugs that are very difficult to manage.

This brought up an interesting question for the world to answer; can we live with zero? Is it possible to totally eradicate a biological population, beneficial or pathogenic, and still survive as a human race? If you read the labels of some of the most widely used pesticide, the word “control” is what they are attempting to do. Pesticide manufacturers learned long ago that farmers want to grow the best. Corn, potatoes, peas, or beans it doesn’t matter. Farmers want to produce the best because they know the customer, either American, Japanese, or Korean . . . , wants the best. And the best does not have a blemish on it and is perfectly shaped. This is why we are striving for zero. If there are no bugs, there are no blemishes; then all is good with the world. Or is it? I submit to you the concept that our world cannot exist with zero. We are all part of this very intricate and very sensitive biological system called life. We exist with plant life, beneficial bacteria life, pathogenic life, and it goes on and on.

The American farmer produces more food than anywhere else in the world and they could produce more if our buying standards were not so high. If a potato has a blemish on its skin it is still a potato. If it is misformed, it will cook just as good as a perfect potato. I think you can see where I am going with this Utopian thought. All I want you to take home from this post is we can’t live with zero.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Plant Resistance: Top to Bottom and Bottom to Top

As in humans, plants have genetic material in them to help fend off disease infections and damage from insects. This is called the plant’s natural defense system. Certain genes in the plants makeup are responsible to keep all systems going strong, even when the plant is attacked from a soil borne pathogen, an insect infestation, or the negative impact of excessive heat or flooding. But what happens when an event is so strong that it over shadows the plant’s ability to take care of itself? Fortunately, there are two systems that can be put into play to help the plant take care of itself; they are called SAR and ISR.

ISR, Induced Systemic Resistance, can start at the earliest part of the seedling development. ISR can be triggered by many bacteria and fungi as well some natural compounds but for this discussion I want to concentrate on two types of Plant Growth Promoting Rhizobacteria, PGPR, namely Pseudomonas fluorescence and Pseudomonas putida. When applied on the seed or onto the roots of transplants, these bacteria form an association with the root system triggering the systemic resistance. To compare this with a human analogy, it’s like getting a flu shot to prevent the flu.

SAR, Systemic Acquired Resistance, is a system by which the plant tries to repair damage that has already been done. In the case of insect or disease damage to the foliage, the genes responsible will cause rapid healing of the damaged tissue in order to stop the spread of the pathogen.  We have found that certain compounds, Salicylic Acid and phosphite products can ramp up the SAR in plants that are infected with pathogens. This is very important in the case of viruses because reducing the symptoms, which SAR can do if triggered early enough, on the plant tissue should reduce the negative impact of the virus and allow the plant to develop normally.

So what does this all mean? We at Ag Tech Services, LLC have the PGPR inoculants that will give you the benefits of ISR plus many, many more. We also have a program that reduces the damage caused by a particular virus using a Salicylic Acid product in combination with calcium. By reducing the symptoms on the tissue we should be able to manage the virus which is better than trying to eradicate it.

It’s all about plant health from the bottom up to the top down.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Beer and Planting!

Enjoy one while doing the other and you might end up with crooked rows - and maybe even in the wrong field!  Using and enjoying the knowledge that can be gleaned from both can set you up with a crop to be proud of. 
Giving your crop the best start possible could be compared to starting a batch of beer.
Success is not guaranteed, all you can do is attempt to control and guide the process.
I like this comparison because it gives me a chance to explain the growing use and acceptance of biological inputs in a way that is easy to follow.

Let’s start with sanitation. 
In the field you have tasks like residue management, weed control including trying to keep the weed seed bank low, and varying levels of soil prep for what you plan to plant.  There are also disease and insect hosts in and around the field that should be scouted and appropriate actions taken when enough of a potential problem is found.  For some crops fumigation is used to achieve a certain level of soil sanitization.  This can be useful but remember that everything is killed with fumigation even the good guys. 
In brewing, sanitation is also very important.  It is very similar to the approach in the field.  You do not need total sterilization or control.  Just address the most common problems and decrease the numbers of bacteria/fungi in preparation for guiding the brewing process in your desired direction.  All you need to do is level the playing field to give you a greater chance of success. 
Could you have a successful crop with minimal prep?  Sure, but the odds are against it.
Could you have a safe tasty beer with minimal sanitation?  Sure, but the odds are against it.

Next let’s cover adding enough nutrients to the system to provide for the end product.
In the field this should involve soil testing to have an idea of what nutrients are already in the soil and their levels.  There are many other pieces of information that are made available at the same time.  Soluble salts, pH, percent organic matter, and cation exchange capacity are just a few.  This information is then used, along with the needs of the crop to be planted to figure out what nutrients need to be added to the field soil, or what will need to be supplied to the crop during the season.
In brewing this involves making wort – a watery solution of sugars, starches, and enzymes extracted from barley.  Plus any myriad of other ingredients added for flavor, aroma, and texture goals.  It is becoming common to add a liquid nutrient package to the wort along with the yeast to get fermentation off to a healthy start.

So now you have this nutrient rich medium all ready to go.   
In the field this might mean a well prepared seed bed ready to plant.  
 In brewing this would be a fermenter full of cooled to room temperature wort.
Are you going to leave things to chance and hope the right kind of yeast or even bacteria (sour beers are gaining in popularity) floats along in the air and lands in your wort?  NO!  Only primitive man had to go about it this way!  You are going to “pitch” a large amount of a wonderful hard-working yeast strain that has been in use by humankind for many years.  It is an infection or inoculation of sorts; you are deciding how those nutrients you so carefully put together are going to be used.  You are going to control and guide the fermentation process to get the alcohol content, flavors, aromas, and mouth feel that you want.
It is the same for your crop and field!  Are you going to leave the seed or transplant at the mercy of chance? NO!  Only primitive man had to go about it this way!  The nutrient rich seedbed and impending rhizosphere are like the nutrient rich wort for making beer.  You should “pitch” biological inoculants with the seed or in the root zone.  If you have a recently fumigated soil then there is even more risk to going the “chance” route.  We know that many pathogenic bacteria and fungi can reproduce faster than other benign and beneficial microbial soil dwellers.   So rather than control your soil and plant “infection” now you have just handed the pathogens virgin territory to exploit along with some nice tasty plant snacks.  Don’t risk it and leave it to chance – control your crop's root zone and root development – and crowd out the bad guys – just like your local brewer!
We know that we can influence what happens in the root zone.  One way is to control the “infection” or inoculate the root zone with a large population of assorted “good guy” bacteria and fungi.  Part of this equation is in the simple physical nature of our world, any system has limits of what it can support.  If large numbers of crop friendly beneficial microbes are inoculated into the system many pathogens will be held at bay through competitive exclusion.  In the same way a vigorously fermenting yeast in a batch of beer will not allow molds and bacteria to gain a foothold.   
You decide – do you want phytopthera or rhizoctonia to infect your roots or do you want some trichodermas and fluorescent pseudomonads to be more prevalent?

At Ag Tech Services, LLC we have the knowledge, and the products to accomplish this.

Sometimes, while on a sales call with an organic producer or soil health oriented conventional producer I run into the question “aren’t we encouraging beneficial microbes with adding compost or using compost teas?”  Yes in the broad sense of stimulating the existing soil biology, which is mostly made up of the actinomycetes.  This approach is great for land you own and want to improve for the short and long term, but the benefits will be more general and a gradual process.  However in a land rent situation I would choose to target my crop and its growth and development versus improving soil that I do not own. 
The rationale for this is similar to how you choose to go about using other ag products.  Are you going to broadcast it or band it, full canopy spray or a basal spray?  Logistics, economics, targets, and product efficiencies have to be considered as well.
The approach we take and the specific organisms we use are targeted specifically at your crop and more importantly your crop’s roots.  These microbials are symbiotic root zone dwellers not bulk soil organisms like the actinomycetes.  They need the plant to support them in their life cycle, and in return they provide benefits to the plant.  This is a targeted approach to disease suppression and plant growth promotion.  Beneficial bacteria - Bacillus subtilis, Bacillus polymyxa, Paenibacillus azotofixans, Pseudomonas fluorescens, Pseudomonas putida, Azotobacter chroococcum, Azospirillum brasilense.  
Beneficial fungi - Trichoderma atroviride, Beauveria bassiana, Metarhizium anisopliae.
Once again back to my brewing analogy – there would be a high failure rate in brewing if we were hoping for the right combination of events in nature – versus knowing what will happen when we control and guide the natural fermentation process in the direction we want.

Controlling other variables
In brewing there is usually some consideration given to environmental factors like temperature and light. 
In open field agriculture we take what we get, but look at how much production is taking place all over the world in greenhouses, shadehouses, and high tunnels.  There are many industries that have learned to steer around common problems. 
Too many soil diseases? – Move to soilless mediums. 
Too many environmental stressors? – Move inside or under cover and control more of the variables. 
Not enough light for production at the desired time of year? – Supplement with electric light.

So… if you have a crop that has susceptibility to disease or a tough time becoming established? – Improve your chances of success and control your root zone to guide the crop to high yield and quality.