Marvel or foo-foo dust? No verdict yet on biostimulants

Many products purport to boost plant health and yield but objective evidence needed, says researcher

The first year of a biostimulants study showed increased root development and plant vigour. But it’s not yet known what conditions are needed for the products to have an impact or what any payback might be, says Mike Gretzinger, research co-ordinator at Farming Smarter.
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The jury is still out on biostimulants.

“Hopefully in two or three years, we’ll have a better recommendation and strategy for these things, but right now, it feels like there are more questions than answers,” said Mike Gretzinger, research co-ordinator at Farming Smarter.

The recent buzz around biostimulants — a variety of products that boost plant growth — has farmers across Alberta wondering if they are more miracle cure or snake oil. But for most growers, their results will likely depend on their conditions, Gretzinger said at Farming Smarter’s virtual field school in late June.

“Everybody’s situation is going to be different,” he said. “The recommendations are going to be different for every farmer for every different crop that they might be doing and for every condition they might face.”

Biostimulants began to hit the market following regulatory changes in 2013, when the federal government removed the efficacy requirements for many new product registrations. The regulations were changed mainly to address the five- to 10-year backlog in registrations for products that were already registered in the United States.

But it also created a lot of questions about whether bio-stimulants provide a worthwhile benefit, said Gretzinger.

So the Canola Council of Canada launched its Ultimate Canola Challenge to help producers identify the management practices and products that would boost their yield. That study showed higher yields from the treatments — but it was more of a “shotgun approach.”

“This is throwing every possible thing you can out there and seeing what happens — what works, what doesn’t,” said Gretzinger.

Farming Smarter’s three-year biostimulant project hopes to be able to refine those results and quantify the direct impact of biostimulants on crop yields. But it can be hard for farmers to see the benefits of biostimulant products that offer other claims, such as a longer growing season, improved soil health, or improved plant health.

“When it comes to biostimulants, what we see quite a bit is improved vigour in the plants, as well as improved rooting.” – Mike Gretzinger. photo: Supplied

One year into the project, though, the results seem promising.

“When it comes to biostimulants, what we see quite a bit is improved vigour in the plants, as well as improved rooting,” he said. “Those are a lot of the claims put forward, and I’m impressed to see some improvement in the root development and the vigour.”

For producers who have already optimized their fertility and their pest management, biostimulants might be their next step to getting another few bushels an acre. That may not sound like much, but if you’re using an $11-an-acre product on a $15-a-bushel canola crop, you’re seeing a four-to-one return, he said.

However, it’s important for producers to adjust their expectations, especially in a year with poor growing conditions. In 2018, for example, very few products had a return on investment because of drought conditions — although that doesn’t mean the product won’t work under the right conditions.

“You need to recognize that if you tried something in 2018 or 2019 and it didn’t work, it probably wasn’t the product’s fault,” said Gretzinger. “But if you’ve been doing something for four to six years under great conditions and it’s not working, then maybe it’s time to rethink what you’re doing.”

For many, biostimulants may be something they only use in the right conditions rather than every year. But for now, a definitive answer on what those right conditions are is still a ways away.

“I can’t give you a definitive this works or this doesn’t work right now,” said Gretzinger. “But I think a really important perspective is just to look at your overall conditions and your overall situation and make an evaluation based on that.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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