Corn School: Four questions to ask before counting on biologicals for fixing N


There’s plenty of excitement for both economic and environmental reasons about the potential for biological nitrogen fixation for corn and other crops that don’t fix their own nitrogen, but a soil scientist from North Dakota State University says farmers and agronomists should be asking several key questions before counting on added organisms to supply N to growing crops.

Dave Franzen was one of several university researchers that published a study in 2023 that received plenty of attention because it said some of the main commercially-available N-fixing products did not deliver as advertised in trials across 10 Midwestern states.

“There was a very low frequency of successes, what a farmer would call success, as far as yield benefits of using the product versus just using the nitrogen rate alone,” he explains, in this Corn School episode recorded following his presentation at the 2024 CropConnect Conference in Winnipeg, Man.

There are four main questions that farmers, agronomists, and companies interested in selling N-fixing products, need to resolve, he says:

  1. Is there a test or way to check if organisms are alive and capable of doing what they’re supposed to do?
  2. Does the supply chain support keeping organisms alive?
  3. Will they survive in the soil? In other words, are the organisms competitive with existing microbial populations around crop roots?
  4. Are the organisms adapted to the wide range of variability in a field or local region?

Franzen believes farmers should remain curious when it comes to the potential for biologicals.

“I don’t think this is going to go away. And I think that people should pay attention to some of the limitations that are in the supply chain that are in the testing arena, that are in the competitiveness of the organisms. There have been huge strides in microbiology and in biotechnology in the last 20, 30 years, so I think those questions could be answered if if there is the will to answer,” he says.

Check out the episode below for more with Dave Franzen on the potential of N-fixing products:

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