Where good bugs get their start


Legume inoculants Nitrogen fixers begin in the lab and finish in the dirt

ST. JOSPEH, Mo. — Farmers’ fixation on nitrogen fixation is two fold: yield and cost.

Pulse crop margins are built on reasonable prices for the commodities, good yields, low costs of production and leftover nitrogen in the soil.

The last three require nitrogen fixing rhizobia inoculation of the root systems.

In St. Joseph, Missouri, Becker Underwood’s inoculants begin their trip from discovery in the lab to the farm field.

The company also has a Canadian research and production facility in Saskatoon, which is part of its six North American locations.

“St. Joseph is focused on liquid inoculants and research,” said Chris Freiden, who heads up operations there and seed biology at the company’s Idaho facility.

“We do peat (spherical granule) based products here as well. Clay (granule production) takes place in Saskatoon. We do a (traditional, non-sterile) peat product as well, but it is a declining business as more farmers move to granule use.”

Nitrogen fixing bacteria cause plants to take the nutrient from the air and place it in a plant’s roots and ultimately the tissues and seeds. Their life begins with scientists like Padma Somasegaran, researcher and head of quality control for Becker Underwood.

“When it comes to getting nitrogen out of the environment, you have two choices, industrial or biologic: Haber-Bosch or legume-rhizobia symbiosis,” he said.

“One costs a lot more than the other.”

Getting the right rhizobia in sufficient quantities is critical to successful inoculation.

Somasegaran and his colleagues begin by looking for strains of bacteria that encourage nitrogen fixation and are durable enough to survive in a variety of soil acidity levels, temperatures and other abiotic and biotic stress conditions.

With the right rhizobial strains fixing nitrogen, soybean roots can fix 59 to 149 pounds of nitrogen per acre, per season, an equivalent of 114 to 219 lb. of urea. Lentils can fix 78 to 101 lb. of actual nitrogen and peas can fix 46 to 69 lb.

There are different strains within the families and each is selected based on its effectiveness within a geographic region. Certain strains are mandated in some international jurisdictions.

Feiden said four strains are allowed in Brazil. In Canada, the strains have been efficacy tested according to federal rules that will change next April.

“The U.S.? Well it’s the wild, wild west. We test everything because it’s our reputation that is at stake. We test and test,” he said.

Inoculant companies must test through all phases of the rhizobia’s development and production to keep the quality of the product in line with grower expectations.

“These are live animals,” he said. “Very small, but they are living and we have to keep their populations up through seeding and into the growing season.”

Feiden said at least 100,000 must reach each seed sown.

“Peas and lentils (rhizobia) are much more fragile than soybean,” he said.

The appropriate bacteria are in-creased in flasks, while undergoing constant movement.

Pea and lentil rhizobia take three to four days to grow or increase, while soybean appropriate bugs take six to 10 days.

Those populations are then placed into larger, computer managed vessels of 2,000 litres. From there they move to 20,000 litre production.

The rhizobia are tested at each step for target populations, with pea and lentil products being tested up to 20 times on their way to being moved into special, farm-ready poly bladders.

The system and the facility is ultra clean, with machinery repaired and sterilized between batches.

“It’s like repairing and maintaining farm machinery between growing seasons to avoid a wreck. Except our seasons are a lot shorter,” Feiden said.

If there is going to be a wreck, it happens in the bladder fill room where 250,000 containers pass each year.

“If we get 10 returns a year we feel that is acceptable. In 2011 we had none,” said Feiden.

A microbiologist fills a 7.52 litre bladder with a product such as Nodulator XL every 10 minutes.

All the replacement parts and tools for the job are sterilized and kept inside the clean suite where the filling takes place, just in case a breakdown occurs. If that happens, it can be fixed without risking contamination and a decontamination of the fill room.

A printed code is attached to each bladder after it leaves the fill room, making it fully traceable should there be a problem.

Food for the nitrogen fixing bacteria is added to the bladders, which are then placed in boxes and shipped to distributors.

“Biotechnology is what we do,” said Peter Innes, chief executive officer of Becker Underwood.

“Our reputation is critical in this business. Farmers and the dealers who service them are very loyal, provided you don’t ever screw up. So we test everything and over-deliver, just to be sure.”

The company recently introduced bacillus subtilis, a biological fungicide to suppress rhizoctonia and fusarium in soybean and canola seed.

“It’s worth a half a bushel to the acre (in canola),” Innes said about the product, which is found in Monsanto’s Acceleron seed treatment.

“The way genetics companies are stacking genes in the inside of their seeds, we are stacking our products on the outside.”

In South and Central America, the company produces a variety of biological products such as silage inoculants that sequester toxins as they pass through a ruminant’s gut and a fungal product that acts as a biological pesticide on locusts.

In golf, the company’s colourant division helps make the grass greener and the water hazards blacker on many PGA courses.

The company also produces beneficial nematodes and bio-nematicides for the horticultural industry.

“We are interested in it, if it works and we can grow it,” said Innes.

“Biostacked products haven’t always been a success. Some that were released in the 1990s, not by us, didn’t work as well as some thought. We have to overcome that legacy by making sure all of our products work.… So we test, and test and trial and test again.”

Based in Ames, Iowa, the 30 year old company employs 470 people, 58 in Canada.