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CropTalk: "N" Your Toolbox

July 2020

Published on Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Every day, we swim through a soup of gases, and nearly 80% is elemental nitrogen, N2. This nitrogen (N) gas is two molecules of N connected by an incredibly strong triple bond. Humans have only had the technology to transform atmospheric N into biologically-available forms for less than 80 years, and it comes at enormous costs. So, despite that 80% of the air the plant encounters, in the stomata of the leaf or the pore spaces in the soil, is pure N, plants have no way to tap into the infinite supply of N2.

Soybeans and other legumes have evolved a remarkable partnership with free-living bacteria in the Rhizobium family. Plant roots typically fortify themselves to prevent bacterial infection, but legumes allow Rhizobia to infest the root and even to tap into the plant’s sugar supply – but there are no free meals. The plant demands plantavailable nitrate nitrogen (NO3 -) from the bacteria. If there’s an abundance of available N in the soil, the soybean plant is quick to evict the bacteria, lest it “pays” for something it can get for free.

Corn and other grasses don’t permit Rhizobia to infest their roots. However, corn does secrete sugar-containing exudates from its roots, fostering relationships with microbial communities in the soil. In recent decades, scientists have worked to identify these complex relationships so that they can be optimized to increase efficiency in corn production.



Just as TV commercial breaks are inundated with advertisements for “proprobiotic,” “pre-biotic,” and “microbiomefriendly” products from foods to vitamins and skincare, the agricultural industry is also making big changes by harnessing small organisms. In 2020, the Beck’s Practical Farm Research (PFR)® team is testing three products that work in different ways to increase the available N supply to plants.

Pivot Bio PROVEN™ microbes are applied in-furrow during planting. The microbes adhere to the roots of the corn plant and produce N and deliver it directly to the roots of the corn plant. Pivot Bio PROVEN microbes continually feed N to the corn plant throughout the growing season with peak N production during the crop’s most critical growth stages. This supports a more reliable and consistent method for delivering plant nutrition.

Envita™ is applied in-furrow, and enables every cell in the plant to fix its own N. Envita is a naturally occurring, foodgrade bacteria, Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus, that was originally discovered in sugarcane. Envita forms a beneficial relationship with the host plant and provides N to every cell in the plant, both above and below ground, throughout the growing season.

Source™ from Sound Ag works differently from the two products discussed above. It is applied as a foliar spray, and goes to work in the soil where it activates beneficial microbes at the root zone. These microbes unlock phosphate to make it available to the plant, and transform N in the atmosphere into a plant available form. The result is an increased boost of N and phosphorus for the plant throughout the season, which can lead to increased plant health and enhanced yield.

One hundred years ago, the only reliable N source for all of humanity was pretty much the south end of a north facing cow. Today, most commercial agricultural production relies on huge N2-busting factories that use natural gas to put air under enormous heat and pressure, cleaving the triple bond that makes N2 biologically unavailable. One hundred years from now, farmers just might be using tiny bacteria to supply N throughout the season cheaply, effectively, and with reduced environmental risks. If you check in with our PFR results later this year, you just might get a glimpse of the future.

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Samantha Miller

Samantha Miller

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