Repairing Harvest Ruts This Spring

I’ve seen more fields with harvest ruts this year than I usually do. There were several weather-related factors that contributed to this situation. The wet spring led to planting delays, delaying crop maturity. However, the biggest factor was the green stems that were prevalent throughout much of Michigan. The green stems were a physiological response to the dry weather we experienced in June and most of July, and the abundant rain occurring in August and September. The stems also stayed green for an extended period of time because a killing frost didn’t occur until late November.

Severe harvest ruts. Photo: Mike Staton, MSU Extension

Severe harvest ruts

Producers don’t like harvesting soybeans with green stems as it is more difficult, slow and plugging the cylinder or rotors in the combine is a possibility. Producers that waited for the green stems to dry down missed out on some ideal harvest conditions and ended up harvesting some of their fields when the soil was too wet. As a result, harvest equipment left ruts in these fields. In some cases, the ruts are more than 6 inches deep and in others, they are less than 2 inches deep. Most of the harvest ruts I’ve seen are confined to localized areas within fields. However, in a few cases, deep ruts created by every pass of the combine can be seen (see photo). All ruts deeper than your projected planting depth must be leveled prior to planting for planters and drills to perform properly.

When repairing ruts this spring, the objectives are to fill and level the ruts just enough to facilitate planting operations without causing further soil compaction. Loosening the soil at the bottom of or below the ruts should not be attempted because the tillage tools will need to be operated at greater depths and into soil that is probably too wet. This increases the risk of further soil smearing or compaction to occur. Root growth and crop yields will be reduced in the repaired areas.

Michigan State University Extension recommends secondary tillage implements such as disks, field cultivators, soil finishers and vertical tillage for repairing ruts 2-4 inches deep. For ruts deeper than 4 inches, a chisel plow may be necessary. Always operate the implements as shallow as possible to fill and level the ruts. Multiple passes may be required to achieve the desired degree of leveling.

Perform tillage operations when the soil at or just above the operating depth is dry enough to prevent soil smearing and compaction. Iowa State University agricultural engineer Mark Hanna recommends the following methods for assessing soil moisture conditions:

  • Collect a handful of soil from an area between ruts and 2 inches above the operating depth of the tillage tool and form it into a ball. Then throw the ball of soil as if throwing a runner out at first base. If the ball stays mostly intact until it hits the ground, the soil is too wet to till.
  • Take a similar soil sample in your hand and squeeze the soil in your fist and use your thumb and forefinger to form a ribbon of soil. If the ribbon extends beyond 2-3 inches before breaking off, the soil is too wet to till.

Remember, your objectives with spring rut repairs are to fill and level the ruts without causing further soil compaction. Attempting to loosen the soil below the ruts increases the potential for further soil smearing and compaction to occur.

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Corn Nematodes: Silent Yield Thieves

Corn nematodes in Alabama are a problem many growers are not aware of. The nematodes feed on roots, and cause symptoms similar to those of soil fertility disorders.
Alabama Cooperative Extension System Entomologist and Plant Pathologist, Dr. Austin Hagan, said nematodes can cause slow corn seedling growth and plant discoloration.
“We have problems with nematodes in corn each year,” he said. “They were a particular problem in corn in the spring of 2016. Cooler weather, in addition to nematode feeding on the roots under conditions that were not ideal for corn, caused slow-growing seedlings.”
Cotton Root-Knot Nematode on Corn
“Root-knot nematode is one of the most common pests in Alabama corn,” Hagan said. “The particular race that goes to cotton also hits corn. Anywhere in the state where producers have experienced issues with cotton root-knot nematodes in cotton, will likely see yield losses to this nematode in corn.”
Southern Root Knot Nematode. 
Like most nematodes, root-knot nematodes prefer sandy or sandy loam soils. These nematodes are found in North Alabama in clay soils as producers shift toward continuous corn production.
The reproduction rate of root-knot nematodes in corn and cotton is equally high. Hagan said this indicates both plants are good hosts.
“The yield losses seen in rotation studies suggest in continuous corn situations, or in corn planted behind cotton, producers could see a yield loss of nearly 30 percent.” Hagan said. “While this is on the extreme end, more recent trials show a four to five percent yield loss for every 100 juveniles found in a fall soil sample.”
In studies run by Alabama Extension professionals thus far, no known resistance to root-knot nematode has been found.
Stubby Root Nematode on Corn
Stubby root nematode has become more prevalent in the past few years. Producers may see patchy, stunted areas in corn, easily confused with fertility and pH issues.
“The host range includes many of our field crops, but the highest rate of reproduction is in corn,” Hagan said.
Peanuts, grain sorghum and soybeans are hosts, but corn is the most favorite host. Stubby root nematodes prefer sandy soils. While there have not been specific studies to determine the yield impact of stubby root nematodes on corn, Hagan said there is no doubt these nematodes are capable of damage to corn on a comparable scale to root-knot nematodes.
The threshold for treatment is as low as 10 nematodes per 100 cc’s of soil, but may be as high as 40 nematodes per 100 cc’s. Numbers appear to be higher in the spring and remain the same, or even decrease throughout the growing season.
Lesion Nematode on Corn
Lesion nematodes, like root-knot and stubby root nematodes, prefer sandy soils and have a broad host range. These migratory endoparasites can cause particularly heavy damage to peanut pods.
The damage threshold is near 200 nematodes per cc of soil.
Corn Nematode Control Options
“There are not a lot of control options for nematodes in corn,” Hagan said. “The most effective means for control is management through crop rotation, and the second option is to use a nematicide.”
The best crop to manage cotton root-knot nematode in cotton and corn is peanuts. Hagan said even one year of peanuts pushes the population back to a point where producers may not need a nematicide.
There are also root-knot resistant soybean varieties. Sesame and sunn hemp are both rotation options if producers are looking for a summer cover crop.
In-furrow nematicides in infested fields boost yields up to 30 bushels per acre. Treatment of fields with no nematode population have no known yield boost.
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Tips to growing great strawberries

There’s no doubt Californians have a love affair with strawberries. The delicious berry is the state’s fifth most valuable crop, and California farmers are responsible for about 80 percent of all the strawberries grown in the nation.
The home gardener loves them, too, and because of our climate and the variety of berries available, we can enjoy pretty much a year-round harvest.
Here are some tips on fulfilling your strawberry dreams:
Berries like full sun and soil that drains well. They also need potassium, so add pot ash when planting in clay soil.
Don’t plant where you have grown tomatoes, eggplants or peppers as strawberries are susceptible to verticillium wilt, a fungus that can infect the soil and damage or kill the plant.
Strawberries have shallow roots and need to be watered frequently. Keep plants moist but not soggy.
Strawberries do best when refreshed every year. Dig up and discard of the mother plant. Snip off and replant the healthiest runners that are putting out strong roots and, to ensure large harvests and superior taste, plant new plants every 3 to 4 years.
Strawberries fall into three primary categories: Everbearing, day neutral and June bearing.
Everbearing requires long days of sunlight to set fruit and, although they don’t bear all year-round, they produce multiple crops in spring, summer and fall.
• Mara Des Bois, developed by a French breeding program, produces small, extremely fragrant, very flavorful fruit.
• Quinault produces up to 2 inch berries that are exceptionally sweet, great fresh or in preserves. It grows well in containers.
• White Carolina, or pineberry, is a unique white to pale pink berry that tastes like a cross between a strawberry and a pineapple. It produces medium size fruit from spring through fall and is heat tolerant and disease resistant.
Day Neutral berries do not depend on a set number of daylight hours in order to flower. They are a great choice if you want a small amount of fruit throughout the year.
• Alpine, sometimes thought of as wild strawberry, is a compact, clumping variety that can be grown in part sun. It has small, aromatic, rich tasting berries. Plants do not sent out runners so it makes a great edging option.
• Albion produces large, firm very sweet berries. It is disease resistant but needs more water and nutrients than other varieties. It spreads out rapidly, so space accordingly.
• Seascape, produced by the University of California in 1992, is productive. Many think it has the best flavor that any of the day neutral varieties.
June bearing strawberries require short day lengths, as in the fall, in order to flower. They are the most widely grown berry and make up the bulk of what you find at the supermarket. They tend to be vigorous plants, putting out lots of long runners, so require room to grow.
They are prolific producers of large fruit, but since the fruit comes on all at once you have to use it all pretty quickly. They are great for jams, jellies and pies.
Unlike the name implies, they don’t all produce in June.
• Chandler offers good color and flavor, and the fruit holds well on the vine. It is susceptible to anthracnose disease.
• Earliglow is known for its wonderful strawberry flavor. The fruit is sweet, firm and medium sized. It produces vigorous runners, so give it plenty of space.
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How to manage septoria disease in wheat

That makes attention to detail more important than product choice, he believes. “We have the tools to manage septoria, even though the disease is mutating.

“But getting behind with spraying is the worst thing you can do. It’s better to be a day or two early than a day or two late.”

Spray timings

  • T0 – protects leaf 4 – GS30 (or about two to four weeks before the T1 spray)
  • T1 – protects leaf 3 – GS31-32
  • T2 – protects leaf 1 (flag leaf) – GS39
  • T3 – protects the ear – GS61-65


The septoria fungicide toolbox is limited to three main groups: the azoles, the SDHIs and multi-sites.

Of those, the azoles have seen the biggest decline in performance, with their eradicant control dropping by over 60% since they were introduced. Despite the discovery of a few insensitive strains in 2016, the SDHIs are still giving good control in the field.

The multi-sites, which have been in use for many years, remain unaffected and have a low risk of resistance.

Other chemistry, such as the morpholines, can have some effect on the disease, but are not active enough against septoria to be used as a key component of a septoria strategy.

However, the strobilurins are ineffective against septoria, due to widespread resistance.

Given the developing situation with resistance and the complex nature of the disease, the multi-site fungicides are a vital tool for septoria management.

According to Jonathan Blake, principal research scientist at ADAS, they should be the first product into the tank at both T1 and T2 when it comes to septoria and should also form the backbone of any resistance management strategy.

“Chlorothalonil is an essential component. Although it can have negative effects on the curative activity of all products, the benefits of it outweigh any negatives.”

The T0 spray does very little for septoria control and it is rare to see a benefit from it where this disease is concerned if the T1 and T2 sprays are applied correctly, he notes.

“For other diseases, the T0 is more important and offers some insurance. But with septoria, the T1 and T2 timings are the main ones.”

Filling up a sprayer © Tim Scrivener

© Tim Scrivener

For Mr Sparling, the T0 spray acts as a holding treatment and buys some time if there are any subsequent delays, so he will often make use of chlorothalonil and a strobilurin at this stage. However, he accepts that the T1 and T2 sprays are more critical with septoria.

“Getting those two right is really important. The other spray timings are just frittering about at the edges.”

Bill Clark, technical director of Niab Tag, notes that there won’t be a yield response from a T0 in most years.

“But it offers some help if you don’t get the T1 spray right, so it gets applied for the flexibility it brings.”

Including an SDHI at T1

While most field situations will warrant the use of an SDHI at T2 in a three-way mix, the more difficult decisions about product choice come earlier in the season at T1, believes Dr Blake.

“The worst thing to do is to apply an SDHI where it is not needed, so try and keep two applications of SDHIs as the exception,” he says.

“At T1, an azole plus chlorothalonil mix may be adequate.”

However, growers in the West with susceptible varieties are likely to see a benefit from including an SDHI at T1, while others will do it for risk management purposes, he accepts.

At T2, it’s worth using all the firepower on offer, believes Mr Sparling, who will be planning to use one of the best SDHI products with a high rate of triazole.

“And if it’s a bad spring for septoria, I will have no hesitation in recommended an SDHI at T1 too.”

He advises growers to look at what they’re getting for their money.

Spraying T1 in wheat © Tim Scrivener

© Tim Scrivener

“There is more choice of SDHIs than ever, which then need to be partnered with either prothioconazole or epoxiconazole at a rate of 80-100%.

“There’s no need to be spending crazy amounts on fungicide programmes, but quibbling over an extra £3-£4 at the flag leaf timing is a false economy and pointless.”

If septoria control needs topping up at T3, an azole will do the job, with prothioconazole and tebuconazole being the main contenders.

Finally, all fungicide programmes used on wheat in 2017 must adhere to the guidelines on resistance management.

High-risk practices are thought to accelerate declines in sensitivity to both triazole and SDHI fungicides.

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Saving Water, Fertilizer in Durum Wheat

Irrigation is a must for wheat producers in Arizona’s hot, dry climate, but most of the water comes from the Colorado River, and that supply is being depleted by the long-term drought.

Fertilizer is getting more expensive, and when too much fertilizer and water are applied, the excess amounts can percolate too deeply into the soil and contaminate the groundwater.

Maximizing yields with as little water and fertilizer as possible is a top priority for today’s Arizona wheat growers.

Optimal irrigation levels for wheat means hitting a sweet spot: Applying abundant water will increase yields, but overwatering wheat as the grain is filling in can reduce the protein content and potentially reduce the value of the crop.

Bronson and his colleagues grew durum wheat for 2 years using 5 fertilizer rates and 10 irrigation rates to compare yields and how efficiently the wheat used nitrogen. They focused on durum wheat, a $131 million crop in Arizona that is used in pastas and sold at premium prices. Durum wheat is also an important crop in several other southwestern states. Kevin Bronson, a soil scientist at the U.S. Arid Land Agricultural Research Center in Maricopa, Arizona, conducts research that can guide Arizona wheat producers on irrigation and fertilizer practices that maximize yield and grain quality. The advice is timely: advances in overhead sprinkler systems and other technologies are giving farmers more control over how much water they use.

The scientists used daily weather data to calculate a base irrigation rate. They irrigated two to four times a week with a mobile overhead sprinkler system. Plant samples were analyzed for nitrogen content to determine how efficiently the plants used nitrogen fertilizer. The scientists calculated optimal irrigation and fertilizer rates based on total yields. They also calculated an “economic rate” that factored in fertilizer costs and market prices for durum wheat.

The researchers found that the more water and fertilizer they applied, the higher the yields. Going beyond optimum water and fertilizer rates produced taller wheat plants that tended to lodge, or fall over, which cut into yields.

For maximum yield, the optimal fertilizer rate was 225 pounds of nitrogen per acre. But they also found that when they factored in fertilizer costs, more isn’t always better. The economic rate, with the fertilizer cost included, was about 175 pounds of nitrogen per acre.

The optimal irrigation level was about 20 inches of water throughout the growing season. Going beyond that causes some of the water and nitrogen to percolate too deeply into the soil.

The results also showed that an impressive 70-90 percent of the applied nitrogen was used by the crop irrigated with overhead sprinklers. That compares to nitrogen use rates of 50 percent or less seen in many row crops irrigated with surface flooding, Bronson says.

Growers in Arizona are gradually shifting away from surface flooding and adopting the type of overhead sprinklers used in the study. Bronson hopes that the results, published in the March 2016 issue of Field Crops Research, will encourage more growers to start using overhead sprinkler systems.

“Overhead sprinklers are more precise, ensure that less water is wasted, and can save on fertilizer, because a carefully watered crop is more efficient at using the nitrogen fed to it,” he explains.

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New Research On Why Plant Tissues Have A sense Of Direction

Scientists at the John Innes Centre, Norwich have published new evidence that plant tissues can have a preferred direction of growth and that this characteristic is essential for producing complex plant shapes.
The work, carried out by Dr Alexandra Rebocho and colleagues in Professor Enrico Coen’s laboratory, contributes a new piece to the puzzle of how plant shapes are formed, and could have wide implications on our understanding of shape formation, or ‘morphogenesis’, in nature. Improved understanding of how genes influence plant shape formation could inform research into crop performance and lead to better-adapted, higher yield crop varieties.
The pioneering research, published in eLife, required an integrative approach, using diverse techniques including computer modelling, 3D-imaging, fluorescence imaging and a range of genetic techniques.
Plant organs, such as leaves, petals, and fruits, each start out as a tiny ball of cells that grow into a specific final shape. The precise shape of these organs has been modified over millions of years of evolution in relation to specific functions such as attracting pollinators or catching sunlight.
One of the prevailing theories of how complex plant shapes develop, upon which this new research builds, is the theory of ’tissue conflict resolution’. At the heart of shape development are internal differences in how tissue regions grow, and it is the resolution of these conflicts that produces shapes. These tissue conflicts are not contentious, but precisely coordinated, with their resolution leading to a particular flower or leaf shape.
Within the ’tissue conflict resolutions’ theory, growth outcomes depend on groups of cells, called tissues. In isolation, individual regions of tissue would simply grow equally in all directions, or elongate in a preferred direction.
In reality, tissue regions do not occur in isolation. The adhesion and cohesion between adjoining regions, each following their own growth patterns, creates stresses, which cause the tissues to buckle, curve or bend to a compromise state.
These three-dimensional, out-of-plane tissue deformations are found extensively within the plant and animal kingdoms, and underlie some critical processes of animal development, including gut folding, neurulation, and development of the cerebral cortex.
There are three proposed types of tissue conflict resolution: areal, surface and directional. Areal conflict is between two areas of tissue within a surface, and surface conflicts occur between adjoining, but distinct, surfaces. Both areal and surface conflicts have been previously shown to be important for shape development.
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Deadly new wheat disease threatens Europe’s crops

An infection that struck wheat crops in Sicily last year is a new and unusually devastating strain of fungus, researchers say — and its spores may spread to infect this year’s harvests in Europe, the world’s largest wheat-producing region.

“We have to be careful of shouting wolf too loudly. But this could be the largest outbreak that we have had in Europe for many, many years,” says Chris Gilligan, an epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge, UK, who leads a team that has modelled the probable spread of the fungus’s spores.

In alerts released on 2 February, researchers revealed the existence of TTTTF, a kind of stem rust — named for the characteristic brownish stain it as it destroys wheat leaves and stems. The alarm was raised by researchers at the Global Rust Reference Center (GRRC) in Slagelse, Denmark, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), headquartered in Texcoco, Mexico.

Last year, the stem rust destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of crops in Sicily. What’s particularly troubling, the researchers say, is that GRRC tests suggest the pathogen can infect dozens of laboratory-grown strains of wheat, including hardy varieties that are usually highly resistant to disease. The team is now studying whether commercial crops are just as susceptible.

Adding further concern, the centres say that two new strains of another wheat disease, yellow rust, have been spotted over large areas for the first time — one in Europe and North Africa, and the other in East Africa and Central Asia. The potential effects of the yellow-rust fungi aren’t yet clear, but the pathogens seem to be closely related to virulent strains that have previously caused epidemics in North America and Afghanistan.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome is expected to issue similar alerts about the three diseases on 3 February.

Severe wheat damage in Europe could affect food prices, inflation and the region’s economic stability, says James Brown, a plant pathologist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK.

But researchers hope that by putting out alerts before European wheat crops have started to grow this year, they will give farmers enough warning to monitor fields and apply fungicides, halting the disease’s spread. Plant breeders can also start to ramp up efforts to produce resistant varieties. “Timely action is crucial,” says Fazil Dusunceli, a plant pathologist at the FAO.

Return of stem rust

In the mid-twentieth century, devastation caused by stem rust spurred efforts to breed wheat strains that could resist the fungi. That research — led by agronomist Norman Borlaug — famously led to the Green Revolution in agriculture, increasing crop yields around the world.

But stem rust returned in the late 1990s and 2000s, with a variety called Ug99 that spread through Africa and parts of the Middle East. It ruined harvests and caused international concern because, says Dusunceli, more than 90% of wheat crops were susceptible to it. So far, however, it hasn’t hit large wheat-producing regions such as Europe, China and North America. Researchers are developing resistant crops.

Stem rust epidemics haven’t been seen in Europe since the 1950s, says Mogens Hovmøller, who leads the GRRC’s testing team. “It’s not a challenge plant breeders have faced for many years,” agrees Brown.

But the outbreak that hit Sicily in 2016 suggests that the disease has now returned. Unusually, even the hardy durum wheat, used to make pasta, is susceptible to it, says Hovmøller. But it’s too early to say whether the new infection could be as devastating as Ug99.

Models based on wind and weather patterns, conducted by Gilligan’s team at Cambridge University together with CIMMYT and the UK’s Met Office in Exeter, suggest that stem-rust spores released during the Sicilian outbreak may well have been deposited throughout the Mediterranean region. That doesn’t mean the infection will spread — the spores may not have survived the winter, for example — but it is worrying enough for researchers to raise the alarm.

The yellow-rust strains are also a concern, says Hovmøller. For Europe, perhaps the most alarming is one provisionally called Pst(new), which was spotted in Sicily, Morocco, Italy and northern Europe in 2016. The fungus is related to a virulent strain that hit North America in the 2000s, but it is not clear how aggressive it is.

Early-warning system

Researchers are accustomed to finding one or two new wheat-rust strains each year in Europe; these must be guarded against but are not usually dangerously virulent. But since 2010, the region has experienced a greater influx of wheat pathogens, says Hovmøller.

He doesn’t know why, but speculates that it could be down to warmer autumns and milder winters attributable to climate change, combined with changes in farming practices, such as sowing wheat earlier in the season. Increases in international travel — potentially spreading spores on clothing — could also be a factor, speculates Brown.

Hovmøller and others will in the next few weeks ask the European Research Council for funds to establish an early-warning system. That will help partners including breeders, scientists and agrochemical companies in Europe to share diagnostic facilities and information about potential outbreaks.

Dusunceli thinks that such a network might have helped to mitigate the Sicily outbreak, which in turn would have meant that fewer spores could spread to other parts of the continent. “I wouldn’t question the necessity for an early-warning system,” he says.

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From flask to field: How tiny microbes are revolutionising big agriculture

Walk into your typical U.S. or U.K. grocery store and feast your eyes on an amazing bounty of fresh and processed foods. In most industrialized countries, it’s hard to imagine that food production is one of the greatest challenges we will face in the coming decades.

By the year 2050, the human population is projected to grow from 7.5 billion to nearly 10 billion. To feed them, we will need to almost double food production within just three decades, all in the face of increasing drought, herbicide and pesticide resistance, and in a world where the best cropland is already being farmed.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, international initiatives referred to collectively as the Green Revolution dramatically increased food production, largely by breeding crop varieties that were able to take advantage of man-made fertilizer and developing powerful pesticides and herbicides. But as we intensified agriculture, we also intensified its environmental impacts. They include soil erosion, reduced biodiversity and the release of greenhouse gases that drive climate change.

Today our ability to continuously push these systems to produce more crops year after year has largely stagnated, and is not keeping pace with rising demand. Clearly, new innovations are needed to change the way we grow food and make it more sustainable.

I am part of a new crop of scientists who are harnessing the power of natural microbes to improve agriculture. In recent years, genomic technology has rapidly advanced our understanding of the microbes that live on virtually every surface on Earth, including our own bodies. Just as our new understanding of the human microbiome is revolutionizing medicine and spawning a new probiotic industry, agriculture may be poised for a similar revolution.

Microbes in soil from a mountainside in eastern Washington. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Replacing chemistry with biology: The power of microbes

In nature, plants coevolve with microbes that live in their rooting zones, on their leaves, and even inside their cells. Plants provide microbes with food in the form of carbon, and microbes make nutrients available to the plants and help prevent disease. But as we started adding more and more chemicals to our fields and tilling soils, we broke the close connection between plants and microbes by killing many of these beneficial organisms.

A few years ago, I decided to apply my expertise in soil microbes to improving agriculture. Of all things, I was inspired by doctors’ surprising success in using human fecal transplants to cure a chronic and often deadly bacterial infection called Clostridium difficile. By simply transplanting the fecal microbiome from a healthy person, the disease was cured. Permanently! Could the same approach work in agriculture?

Along with my close collaborator at Colorado State University, Dr. Colin Bell, I set out to develop a microbial technology to increase the availability of phosphorus, a critical nutrient that plants need to grow. Farmers provide phosphorus to plants by applying fertilizer – but when it is added to soils this way, up to 70 percent of it becomes bound up with soil particles and plants can’t access it.

Microbes can unlock phosphorus and other micronutrients so that plants can use them. We developed a combination of four bacteria that are exceptionally good at making phosphorus available to plants, leading to bigger, healthier plants. They do this by releasing specialized molecules that break the bonds between phosphorus and soil particles. To get this technology into the hands of farmers who can use it, we launched a startup company called Growcentia and started selling our first product, which is called Mammoth P.

I’m not alone in thinking that microbes can help feed the world. Many other startups are working on microbial technologies for food production, including AgBiome, Indigo, Maronne BioInnovations, and New Leaf Symbiotics.

The world’s biggest agriculture companies are also investing heavily in biological solutions. For example, Monsanto recently invested US$300 million in an alliance with the biotechnology company NovoZymes. Why is Big Ag getting into microbes? In part, these companies recognize the problems caused by chemical-based agriculture and want to be part of the future. Clearly they see the potential to make money by giving farmers new tools to produce food more efficiently and with less impact on our planet.

Growcentia focuses on soil microbes that increase nutrient efficiency and uptake, but microbes can also enhance agriculture in many other ways. Some companies are focused on commercializing microbes that have been shown to suppress plant responses to drought, which ironically tricks them into continuing to grow through dry conditions. Other companies are developing microbial products that protect plants from disease and pests. Microbes can even influence the timing of flowering. The possibilities are endless.

Scaling up

Beneficial microbes have long been used in agriculture. Farmers have been adding nitrogen-fixing bacteria to their legume crops and symbiotic fungi called mycorrhizae that help plants acquire nutrients for decades. But many older products contain undefined mixtures of microbes and make broad claims about how they enhance plant growth. They’ve largely earned a reputation as agricultural snake oil. And that history makes it hard to convince farmers to adopt the next generation of beneficial microbial technology.

Farmers treat soil or legume seeds with bacteria that can take nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient, from the air and make it available to the plant. The bacteria form nodules on the plant roots. Terraprima/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Until recently, we could observe and study only microbial species that were easily culturable in the laboratory using traditional approaches – a tiny fraction of the microbial world. But now we have new methods for developing microbial technology that is precisely targeted towards specific functions. We can examine their genes through sequencing or their function using high-throughput screening methods to find microbes with particular attributes. We also can genetically engineer microbes to produce new strains with the characteristics we want. Or we can even synthesize entirely new species from scratch.

It’s one thing to produce beneficial microbes that enhance plant growth in experimental greenhouses. Developing a microbial technology that can be produced at large scale, transported and stored under harsh conditions for long periods of time and then function flawlessly in a wide range of soils and climates is a much bigger challenge. For that reason, many products that are in the pipeline now have a long way to go before they reach a farmer’s field.

Embracing our microbial world

When people think of microbes, many of them picture germs and disease. But most microbes are beneficial, and we literally could not live without them. For too long we have ignored the benefits of a healthy microbiome in agriculture. The explosion of interest in beneficial microbes for food production is exciting and portends a future when agriculture is less reliant on chemicals. The future of food is below our feet in the invisible universe of the microbial world.

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Wheat disease management tips for 2017

This fall a number of diseases have been observed in winter wheat. All three rust diseases — leaf, stem and stripe — were observed, but stripe rust was the most prevalent and severe due to favorable temperatures. Wheat streak mosaic virus also was observed at severe levels in a couple fields in Cheyenne County, where volunteer wheat was not controlled. Given these observations and depending on the weather in spring, significant levels of disease are likely during the 2017 growing season.

Here are some tips for managing wheat diseases in 2017, beginning with steps you can take now.

Put together a comprehensive disease management program. Key steps in such a program include:
• identifying primary diseases
• listing available management tactics
• developing criteria for selection of management tactics
• establishing scouting guidelines and a management plan for each disease
• choosing the best combination of management tactics
• implementing the management tactics chosen

• Start scouting early to determine if stripe rust overwintered. Detection of stripe rust early in the spring on the lower leaves is an indication that it overwintered. In this case, it will be advisable to apply an early, preventive fungicide spray at the early jointing growth stage.

• Monitor the weather. If cool, wet conditions are forecast, a second spray at 50% to 100% flag leaf emergence to protect the flag leaf from stripe rust and other fungal diseases (leaf rust and fungal leaf spot) will be necessary. In the scab-prone regions of the state (southeast, south central and southwest), if there is abundant rainfall starting three weeks before flowering and into the flowering period, the risk for scab (fusarium head blight) will be elevated. If these conditions occur, be prepared to apply a scab fungicide (Prosaro or Caramba) during the period from flowering to about one week later (a wider window of application than previously recommended).

• Monitor reports of rust in Southern states. If there are significant levels of rust in Oklahoma and Kansas wheat fields, the chances are high that Nebraska fields will have similar levels of rust. Monitoring these reports will help you get prepared.

Summer and fall
 Control volunteer wheat after harvest to reduce over-summering of virus diseases such as wheat streak mosaic and fungal diseases such as stripe rust and leaf rust.
• Choose the varieties to plant in the fall based on agronomic performance and disease resistance.
• Treat seed with a fungicide before planting. This will protect the crop from seed-transmitted diseases, such as common bunt, loose smut and flag smut.
• Avoid early planting. Damage from fall diseases, such as wheat streak mosaic, barley yellow dwarf, and stripe and leaf rust, is greater the earlier wheat is planted.

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The ultimate spoon-fed nutrient plan

A program built around drip irrigation is showing dramatic yield improvements when nutrient delivery is matched to actual plant need.

For the corn and soybean producer, the investment in a drip irrigation system can be a challenge. The upfront cost of these systems can be intimidating; yet, once farmers start seeing the yield potential, the investment question may become easier to answer with a “yes.”

“When I worked with onion producers and drip irrigation, we saw amazing yield results,” recalls Jim Hunt, market segment leader for corn and soybean, Netafim. “Corn and soybeans are not as easy as some crops, so we focused on unlocking information about the crops to bring those yield deltas up to justify the expense of a drip system.”

The key is not to think of the system simply for irrigation, but as a nutrient application system — Netafim calls it Nutrigation. But that’s the question: what to deliver, and when? Working with Fred Below, plant physiologist and professor, University of Illinois, Netafim was able to develop a kind of nutrient delivery plan based on actual plant nutrient uptake.

Below has spent several years characterizing how corn and soybean plants use nutrients through the growing season, and when they need it most. Turns out that need comes at different times for different nutrients.

And what started with nitrogen, phosphorus and potash has also expanded to include sulfur and micronutrients.

“What we wanted to do was to create solid yield deltas for those crops, and repeatable results,” says Hunt. “This brings a higher level of irrigation management, including measurement of soil moisture, weather data, crop imagery — and also paying attention to what the crop needs fertility-wise depending on the growth stage.”

With Below’s information, Netafim agronomists were able to start developing plans to impact crop yields in season. For the past two years the company has been working more closely with growers to collect that information, to better quantify the results and show the impact on yield.

Surprising numbers

“With a lot of crop management approaches, you can get a 2- or 3-bushel-per-acre improvement,” Hunt says. “Sometimes you can get as much as 20 bushels per acre.” He explains that with timely application of nutrients through the drip system, the yield increases are a lot higher.

For example, one producer near Denison, Iowa — with odd-shaped fields and an 80-foot elevation change — saw about 230 bushels per acre for the dryland portion of the field. Where drip irrigation was installed, and with timely nutrient application, that part of the field produced 289 bushels per acre. That 59-bushel-per-acre difference was a one-year number, but a big “yield delta.”

In that field N, P, K, S and micronutrients were applied to optimize the return per seed, per unit of fertilizer per acre of land, and per dollar invested. And the field only used 2.5 inches of water in season to apply nutrients.

The list of examples like this is long, and Hunt says his company has worked with a lot of growers to validate this approach to fertilizer application and show the true system payback.

The results make sense when you consider the fact that the crop is never starved for water, and nutrients are delivered as the plant needs to take them up for proper growth. Add in the in-season ability to make changes, and the approach has other advantages.

In-season capability

“With the sensors we currently have, along with tissue sampling, we can monitor the crop and trigger any needs that it has, and deliver [proper nutrients] in smaller bites,” says Tim Wolf, crop agronomic support, Netafim. Daily, or weekly, a drip irrigation system can deliver what the plant needs at the right time, which has implications for the environment and water quality, too.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of precision agriculture tools is that many are postseason systems for diagnosing the year, with little in-season activity possible to boost yields. With a drip system in place, Wolf explains that it’s possible to see a problem and take action.

Wolf explains that farmers can use imagery like Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) or a thermal image, along with ground-truthing stressed areas, to determine crop needs. Based on that information the farmer can take action right away with a drip system in place.

Adds Jim Hunt, market segment leader, corn and soybeans, Netafim: “Years ago, we were working the crop season with nutrients delivered upfront. Now we can be very precise about delivery of the nutrients.”

Wolf and Hunt shared numerous examples of fields where drip-irrigated fields topped dryland yields by 60, 70 and more bushels per acre. And in their multiyear testing, they’re seeing repeatability.

“In one [Oregon, Ill.] field in 2015, there were some dry patches during the season. For the drip-irrigation part of the field versus the rain-fed areas, the difference was 169 bushels per acre. In 2016, when he [the farmer] had plenty of rainfall, the difference was 70 bushels per acre. However, in both years the drip field yielded 300 bushels per acre,” Hunt says. “The system provided yield stability for that field, improving his yield and stabilizing income.”

Running the numbers

Hunt is clear that his company works with farmers to run the numbers. The upfront drip-system cost can be a stalling point until growers really dig into the potential. “That’s what we do, and we can show a payback on a $1,500- to $2,200-per-acre investment in drip irrigation,” he says. “If you’re talking about an area that’s not traditionally irrigated, but has easy access to water — shallow wells or waterways where they can build ponds — it’s easy to run the numbers.”

Wolf explains that they work out amortization of the system over 15 years, though it can last more than 25. “We do that just to be conservative for our grower estimates,” he says. “Actual payback, even with these low commodity prices, ranges from three to six years in most cases. Throw in a drought year, and payback can be in one to two years.”

Delivering fertilizer through an irrigation system, whether pivot or drip, can show a payback. Matching fertilizer delivery more exactly to plant needs and uptake is showing that the precision payback is real, with big per-acre yield improvements.

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