Farmers report on bacterial benefits

With harsh farming practices depleting soil microbial life, how much good can a product offering a bacterial infusion do your soil? Farmers Henry van der Westhuysen, Ian Gerber and La Grange Volschenk found out first-hand. Glenneis Erasmus reports.
Issue Date: 31 October 2008

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Theo Geldenhuys and Johannes van der Westhuysen from Biofarm Solutions believe that microbial products can help producers restore soil health and reduce input costs.

With harsh farming practices depleting soil microbial life, how much good can a product offering a bacterial infusion do your soil? Farmers Henry van der Westhuysen, Ian Gerber and La Grange Volschenk found out first-hand. Glenneis Erasmus reports.

Bacterial populations have been depleted in most soils due to harsh production practices such as stubble burning, ploughing and the use of certain chemicals. “Where farmers use these methods, bacteria need to be supplied regularly,” says sales representative Geldenhuys from Biofarm Solutions, which acts as an agent for Microbial Solutions. A fter 14 years of commercial and academic successes, input company Microbial Solutions offers farmers a range of microbial products to suit their specific production needs. These products consist of customised liquid, living bacterial formulations such as Biostart, Waterbac, Landbac, or DPress, which are combined with a Microboost Activator to stimulate the bacteria’s germination and help ensure it has enough food.

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The bacteria secrete growth stimulants, such as auxins, which stimulate plant root development; gibberellins, which stimulate top growth; and cytokinins, which stimulate seed and fruit formation. In return, plants supply microbial life with sugar. “By restoring soil, root and plant health, the microbes make the plants less susceptible to pests and diseases,” Theo adds. The bacterial products create a healthy environment in the soil food web that stimulates the development of other beneficial soil organisms. This helps make phosphates, nitrogen and other nutrients more readily available to plants. heo advises farmers to use leonardite humates with the microbial products.

Humates enhance soil’s carbon content and stimulate microorganism growth. L eonardite humates are a good source of carbon and humic and amino acids; stabilise nitrogen and improve nitrogen uptake efficiency; and mix well with most fertilisers and chemicals. Humates help keep water in the plant root zone, buffer high pH, prevent leaching and help dissolve locked-up phosphates and other elements in the soil. Easy application he microbial products, like Microbial other supplements, can be applied via pivots, drippers, microjets and draglines or sprayed on dryland with light and high pressure sprayers. They can be applied during planting or production depending on the crop, and can be co-applied with most chemicals and fertilisers. Microbial Solutions’ products cost from R36/ha/month for dryland production to around R55/ha/month for irrigation land on pastures, vineyards and orchards. Grain, small grain and oilseed products cost from just R230/ha/year for a combination of the bacteria and leonardite humates.

The benefits far outweigh the cost, says Theo. “By treating depleted soils, we’ve found yield increases in most crops, which is almost always accompanied by increased protein and sugar content and fewer reported diseases.” 

Case study 1: Farmer testimony a Grange Volschenk, who farms at Bo-Buffelskloof under the Swartberge in the Ladismith area, feels he had success with the Microbial Solutions’ microbial product Biostart and leonardite humates on potatoes. He primarily produces fruit and wine grapes. When old orchards or vineyards are removed, vegetables are used as rotation crops for three years before new ones are established to break the disease and fungal cycles. Pumpkins, tomatoes and potatoes are ideal as there’s a good market for fresh produce in town.

La Grange had hoped the product would not only stimulate soil microorganisms and improve nutrient uptake, but also help combat the pathogenic nematodes that are usually a problem on land were fruit has been produced for so long. The results were good, even though La Grange applied the product seven weeks after planting instead of during, as recommended. Although he planted late, his potato yield increased by 25%. This increased his earnings for potatoes by R4 500/ha, using products that cost only R660/ha. La Grange claims quality and shelf life were significantly improved, and he did in fact experience fewer nematode problems.

La Grange will use Biostart again on potatoes this year to see whether he can replicate the results, and he’s expanded the use to trials on 1ha each of peaches and apricots. Theo points out that the benefits on short-term or annual crops are visible much faster than on perennial plants.

Case study 2: A change pays off Henry van der Westhuysen, who farms at Oude Muragie in the De Rust region, feels he has to change his fertilising and chemical spraying methods if he wants to continue farming. “It is destroying all the life in the soil,” he says. “We used to have an abundance of earthworms – there are hardly any left. Our bird populations have also declined.” Henry struggles with shallow, poor-quality soils: “We irrigate and irrigate, and we have good quality water, but the soil nutrients still remain unavailable.”

Henry primarily farms with vegetable seed, but plants tomatoes for the drying market in September. Tomato production is finished around March, when it’s time to plant vegetables for seed production. He started using the product Waterbac on tomatoes last year, to see if the microbes could make nutrients available and build soil organism content. The results were good. “We had a higher yield and the dryers commented on the tomatoes’ quality,” says Henry. “The plants grew vigorously and were still vigorous after harvesting.” He also feels he had fewer problems with fungal diseases than other farmers in the region. Henry’s still hesitant about the results, as there wasn’t a control and they might have been due to environmental factors, but he’s decided to use the microbes on tomatoes again, as well as on some of his onion lands. The onions are looking good, even though he applied 20% less fertiliser than usual. Still, he emphasises that this is not a scientific trial and other factors may be contributing to his success.

Case study 3: The scientific approach Ian Gerber farms with dairy cattle in Hoekwil near Wilderness. He started using Waterbac on one of his pastures to cut his fertiliser costs – specifically nitrogen – and improve soil health. Ian’s pastures primarily consist of kikuyu oversown with ryegrass, and red and white clover, and are grazed around every 40 to 50 days in winter and every 21 to 25 days in summer.

While it’s never happened to Ian, excess nitrogen can cause fertility problems in cattle. If soil is continually supplied with chemical nitrogen, it loses its ability to produce it and becomes increasingly dependent on inputs. Ian took a scientific approach to using the product, leaving an untreated control area in the pasture to measure the results of the microbial product combination.

Neither the control nor the treated area received nitrogen. The rest of his pastures received 100kg/ha of urea. At the time of the interview in September, Ian planned to supply the control and test areas with 20kg of urea as foliar feed for the first time since he started using the product.

Dry matter (DM) was measured every week. Results showed that the treated area had much faster growth than the control. At the time of grazing, the treated area had 3 815kg DM/ha compared to 2 690kg DM/ha. The growth during the last week was 45kg DM/ha compared to only 18,57kg DM/ha in the control area (see box: Ian’s homegrown trial results). Ian also found that organic material in the treated area breaks down much quicker. For more information contact Graham Limerick, managing director of Microbial Solutions, on 082 900 5580. |fw