There is still a lot that scientists, the academic community and turf managers don't understand about microorganisms and their interaction with soil and turf. But a number of respected members of those groups are convinced of one thing: bionutrition is now an accepted -- and proven -- form of fertility.
Bionutrition and its Role in Modern Fertility Programs
“We’ve come a long way from where we were in our belief process. And we’re just on the edge of what we might be doing five to 10 years from now.” — Dr. Roch GaussoinThere is still a lot that scientists, the academic community and turf managers don’t understand about microorganisms and their interaction with soil and turf. But a number of respected members of those groups are convinced of one thing: bionutrition is now an accepted — and proven — form of fertility.
“They’re misunderstood and often misrepresented by both the academic community and the industry,” Dr. Roch Gaussoin, professor of agronomy and horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said of the microorganisms that make up the emerging category of bionutrition, or, as some prefer, biofertility.
In its simplest form, bionutrition is the enhancement of beneficial microorganisms in the soil to facilitate nutrient availability and uptake. Exactly how that process works through the many different forms of microbial activity has mystified even those who have devoted their careers to plant science.
“It’s an extremely complex and intricate system that is not widely understood,” said Gaussoin. “But recent studies are beginning to clarify and substantiate their importance in the soil ecosystem.”
For example, Gaussoin conducted a study of LebanonTurf’s GreenSmart Enhanced Efficiency Fertilizer. “The data [from the study] clearly indicated an equivalent response with reduced rates of fertility,” said Gaussoin. “We found that we could put down 30 percent less nitrogen and get an equivalent response in terms of color quality and digital analysis.”
Other scientists, whose research has opened up a broader discussion of various forms of biofertility, also are becoming believers.
“Ten years ago, the mention of ‘mycorrhizal fungi’ to a turf manager might have been met with a blank stare,” said Dr. Mike Amaranthus, associate professor at Oregon State University (adjunct) and the president of Mycorrhizal Applications, Inc, in Grants Pass, Oregon. “Today’s turf managers are much more knowledgeable regarding the benefits of mycorrhizae because research studies have shown us all how these specialized fungi can improve turf health.”
“Today’s turf managers are much more knowledgeable regarding the benefits of mycorrhizae because research studies have shown us all how these specialized fungi can improve turf health.” — Dr. Mike AmaranthusScientists cite benefits of biological products in three categories: plant health, cost-reduction and environmental sustainability. Biological products promote thatch decomposition, root growth, nutrient uptake, turf quality and reduce nutrient loss through improved fertilizer efficiency.
Faster grow-in rates, reduced application rates, and the ability to use lower analysis fertilizers can all contribute to reduced maintenance costs when using biological products.
Biofertility can also lead to improved quality of water runoff and a reduction in groundwater, lake, stream and ocean pollution. Biological products also have the potential to sequester carbon gases. “Grasses are great for building carbon in the soil, which has implications for global warming,” said Amaranthus.
The true test for any product or technology, of course, comes from those who use it to solve real-world problems. Bernie Banas, superintendent at the Leatherstocking Golf Course in Cooperstown, New York, has been using biological products on his 102-year-old course for 18 years.
“This past year was probably the hottest, driest summer I’ve ever encountered, and these biologicals saved our cookies,” said Banas. “Our turf just thrived [last] summer.”
According to Banas, he battled a tough case of anthracnose when he first came to the course that adjoins the venerable Otesaga Resort Hotel on the shores of Lake Otsego. “I haven’t seen any anthracnose in a long time,” he added. “This stuff works — it really does.”
As they devote more attention to biologicals, scientists are discovering more reasons for their efficacy.
“Most of these microbial soil amendments started out many years ago as individual organisms, or maybe just a couple of organisms that were cultured artificially and then put into a product,” said Dr. Robert Ames, senior staff scientist at Advanced Microbial Solutions in Pilot Point, Texas. “Many of the early products had very specific functions: enhancement of organic matter decomposition, for example. But as technologies evolved, products with multiple microorganisms were introduced. Later, humic acids, plant hormones and other plant stimulants were added to help the organisms survive in the soil.”
“Many of the early products had very specific functions: enhancement of organic matter decomposition, for example. But as technologies evolved, products with multiple microorganisms were introduced.” — Dr. Robert AmesAlthough used by farmers for hundreds of years to improve crop production, seaweed is a relative newcomer to the biofertility discussion Ascophyllum nodosum is the most researched, and considered the most active, of all of the seaweeds. Extracts from this species promote improved root growth that, in turn, can lead to greener, more attractive turf.
“When you put extracts from the Ascophyllum nodosum species on land plants, they take on some of the same ability as the seaweed to tolerate stress,” said Robin Ross, market development scientist, Plant Science Division, at Acadian Seaplants Limited in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. According to Ross, in addition to increased stress tolerance, turf treated with seaweed extract exhibits greener color and a more attractive appearance (due to higher amounts of chlorophyll) along with increased root growth.
Despite a growing body of scientifically supported knowledge, questions remain concerning biofertility and its role in today’s fertility programs:
* What about elements other than nitrogen? Do biologicals also produce enhanced uptake of other essential elements like phosphorous, potassium and micronutrients?
* What is their longevity and what are their residual effects?
* Are they enhancing the availability or uptake of applied N or of the soil organic N?
“We don’t know all the answers to all the questions,” said Gaussoin. “From an academic standpoint, we want to know these answers. But we also don’t need to know them all to know these products do give equivalent responses with lower N inputs.”
One answer the scientists do seem comfortable with is to the question: Do biological products support and work in a complementary fashion to traditional synthetic products?
“If you’re not using a biological product, you’re completely missing the ability to bolster the plant’s natural defenses, especially to drought and salinity stress.” — Robin RossAccording to Ross, biological products, “Enhance the effectiveness of conventional fertilizers and make those fertilizers work better. If you’re not using a biological product, you’re completely missing the ability to bolster the plant’s natural defenses, especially to drought and salinity stress.”
“We’ve come a long way from where we were in our belief process,” said Gaussoin. “And we’re just on the edge of what we might be doing five to 10 years from now. But as we learn more, and manufacturers apply more of the science, I think we will see highly reputable companies producing appropriate and proven biologically active compounds that turf managers can’t live without.”