Microbial inputs are the next stage in agricultural product development with more and more R&D being focused on them, particular with new science enabling the study of soil, seed and plant microbiomes and their functions and an improved understanding of the effects of inoculation with certain microbes. It can be argued that agrochemical companies sense the writing is on the wall for pesticides and synthetic nitrogen and they need to diversify. It also seems very much a part of the Regen Ag agenda to apply biology rather than chemicals to their crops and could be considered input substitution, albeit more benign. Whilst I would argue there is no substitute for a diverse rotation using leys and where possible adding organic manures, I do think these biologicals are worth investigating and with an obvious yield gap needing to be narrowed between organic and non-organic, they may well offer an opportunity.
There are many products on the market and many bold claims about the efficacy of these products. It seems they are really about supporting the plant to be healthier and to more efficiently use the resources that are available to it. We've just had a meeting with the commercial manager at Unium Bioscience who have developed OF&G approved TIROS as an endophytic seed treatment to help the plant use atmospheric nitrogen, solubilise phosphorus and offer resilience to biotic and abiotic stress factors. The symbiotic relationship between these endophytes and plants has helped the plants to grow in more challenging environments and the work of Unium Bioscience has been to isolate certain strains to offer key functions for agricultural crops to help improve plant health and stress tolerance.
Some concerns may exist around introducing high quantities of non-native microbes to fields and the antagonism with native soil and plant microbes. There is a lot of data suggesting these endophytes really can improve crop performance and there is certainly anecdotal evidence from some of our members that there has been a beneficial effect of using Tiros, but we believe there is a need to build more robust evidence within organic farming systems to feel confident about making recommendations to our members and to seed companies to look at wholesale treatment of organic seed. It may be that where seed quality is reduced, say from multiple years of home-saving, that this treatment could help mitigate some of that reduced quality. If that were the case it would certainly be economical at around £12/ha to use the seed treatment, and only a small increase in yield would be needed to improve margins. With a feed wheat price of £400/t and an average yield say of around 4t/ha , a yield improvement of only 30kg/ha would see you break even on the cost of the seed treatment!
In wanting to provide empirical evidence and therefore a basis for recommendations, we will be testing Tiros this spring under LiveOat, our White's spring oat variety trials, comparing cv. Isabel strips of untreated and treated seed. We will also look to build the data under commercial organic conditions through the the LiveWheat Legacy and LiveBean trials, looking at treated and untreated strips of endemic varieties Extase and Tundra or Vespa respectively.
Here at Organic Arable we believe in supporting on-farm participatory research as the best mechanism to help provide technical advice and the answers to many organic agronomic questions.