Inoculant's Role in Soil Health

Nov 23, 2022

Written By: Jeremy German

This year, fertilizer values have reached for new highs. While this may appear to be a peculiar way to start off an article with the word "inoculant" in the title, I'm excited to share a few words with you that may provide some promise for the future. The cash value of a metric tonne of urea, for example, went from $865/MT in July to $1110/MT in November. Commodity prices have also radically increased across the board. The most glaring recent example has been wheat prices increasing from $9.00/bu to $12.00/bu in that same time period. The bottom line is that nitrogen is a significant piece of your input management and I want to use this article to touch on some innovative options for biological enhancement of your soils. 

With the spike in nitrogen prices, N fixing biologicals have never been more attractive! We are fortunate to have experience (through much of G-Mac's Country) with the value of having pulses in our rotations. For pulse growers, Rhizobium inoculants are a staple for N fixation and we are currently trialling a number of new biological products through our agPROVE field trial program. Back in the early 2000's, I was finishing a degree in Agriculture and at that time biology leaders were already postulating that there would be N fixing microorganisms that would radically change our needs for synthetic fertilizers. Private and public groups have poured millions of dollars into microbiology research and it is exciting to see commercial products coming to us that will allow big acre crops such as wheat and canola to fix nitrogen in a similar way to what we already know in the production of lentils and peas. My point here is that the concept of biology being the major contributor in nutrient supply isn’t a drastic change.  Our soils have the natural ability to supply nutrients and we are fortunate to have a research community that is focused on developing N fixing microbials for both monocot (grasses) and dicots (broadleaf) for decades.  

For our Agronomy Team, who have careers dealing directly with soils, it seems pretty simple that once microbiologists crack the egg on the latest wonder bug, they should be able to jam it in a nice 10L jug and get it to the farm gate!  The process for commercialization of biological products is a lengthy one!  It starts with government registration approval (either PMRA or CFIA) and this can be a long journey before any commercialization efforts can be made.  It takes a lot of time and dollar investment to get biologically based products ready for evaluation on a field scale.  Here is a taste of the great work from our team this past year: 

At G-Mac’s AgTeam, we are fortunate to have Agronomy focused individuals who are keen to evaluate the latest biological innovations.  Our internal training starts by relying on the science background of the Agronomy team and exposing them to new products through internal education sessions and extension work with industry professionals.  One of the responsibilities of our Agronomists is to execute on a season of local agronomy trials in their area called the agPROVE Trial Program.  The N fixing bacteria chart above is a perfect example of the local performance data we gather (with the help of great grower co-operators) to provide G-Mac’s AgTeam, our manufacturing business partners, and our farm customers with the most trusted field research in the region. 

Investment in soil biology research has been driven by a number of groups such as government and universities, small startups and even the major chemical manufacturing companies.  I’ve always felt a simple business philosophy is “follow the money”, and in this case I believe the recent investments in microbiology research and formulation will provide us with some valuable tools in the future.  Federal government goals such as the 30% reduction in N emissions will certainly require us to adopt new practices and soil biology will be a piece of unraveling more efficient production techniques. 

One of the recent innovations for our team was the discovery of a soil test that allows us to identify biology present and quantify the numbers.  Historically, we have worked with a number of labs to gain some glimpses into how the living portion of our soil was performing.  In the past year, the experience with labs such as Trace Genomics has elevated our knowledge of the soil biology present at the time that we take soil samples.  This insight provides us with an analysis of the microbial populations present and quantifies how many of them are active in the soil.  Trace Genomics isn’t the only lab to advance us toward a more microbial focus and we look forward to providing customers with a number of options to uncover the ability of the soil biology to supply nutrients to the crop.  In the 2022 crop season we tested a few inoculant products in the agPROVE trials that had a number of strains of bacteria or fungi that seemed to miss the mark when it came to advancing crop yields.   With the new knowledge from testing for specific soil microbial species (and quantities present) we are on a mission to discover what soil characteristics and conditions justify the addition of specific microorganisms.

We have learned that there are soil resiliency benefits to a number of current biological products in the market.   It comes as no surprise that after farming some of these fields for more than 100 years in monoculture production we have had some significant impacts on soil biology.  Crop rotations and continuous cropping have us headed in the right direction, but there is work to do to improve soil health.  

If you have an interest in learning more about improving your farms soils, we invite you to connect with one of our Agronomists and join us for some field level research in our agPROVE trials in 2023.  

I can’t help but end this article by using a hockey reference to illustrate the value gained by focusing on your key farm asset, your soil.  For most of our customers the holy grail of farming is a package of highly productive land that is owned.  The land is the basis for your ability to produce, and as some wise old fellas have told me a number of times over my career, if you take care of the land it will take care of you.  My hockey analogy is somewhat similar, if you analyze the game as it relates to farming, it’s pretty similar. The more you produce on the land (or score goals on the ice) the better chance you have of long-term success (winning games).  Sports fans take great pride in the investments in player assets such as Connor McDavid and they put a lot of effort to surround him with the resources such as Draisaitl and Kane so that they can “produce” at their highest potential.  It might be a bit of a stretch but I feel we need to keep this type of investment example in the back of our minds as we approach the future of developing our greatest asset (our soil) and giving it every opportunity to perform for us the next season.  Like any great team, it starts with getting the right pieces in place (biology), and really ends with the chemistry created if we want to achieve results. 

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