Smart farmers

Background last update:22 May 2019

Nitrogen fixing bacteria more available to US farmers

As academic researchers attempt to breed nitrogen-fixing genes directly into corn, nitrogen-fixing bacteria are already being sold to farmers.

Azotic North America is one of the companies that sell these nitrogen-fixing bacteria. According to Nolan Berg, president and general manager of the company, these bacterial inputs can help farmers reduce their overall input costs as well as push yields.

As the company goes into it’s seventh year of operation, more and more farmers are investing in their product. Indeed, says Berg, Azotic is currently developing plans to scale manufacturing to meet the change – from hundreds of thousands of acres this year, to millions next.

Friendly invaders

Azotic North America sells Envita – a bacterial input that can be applied to either as a seed coating or through side-dressing in-furrow. Originally discovered in sugarcane by researchers at the United Kingdom’s University of Nottingham, Berg says the bacteria colonises every cell within the plant at the time of germination, and grows with it. With that bacterium’s help, each plant cell can subsequently fix its own nitrogen.

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Global approach

This doesn’t apply to just corn or other grass crops, either. Berg says his company is trying to take a global approach, and they have seen successes in many other crops, from soybeans and rice to canola and pulses.

“It gets physically inside the plant cells where photosynthesis is taking place,” says Berg. “We have yet to find a crop that Envita does not successfully colonise.”

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Trait selection

The bacterium in question was found in 1988, and according to Berg, the only focus since then has been trait selection – that is, determining which strain is the most potent nitrogen-fixer; many strains, he says, stick specifically to the soil and do not colonise plant cells.

He adds the general environmental banality of the organism – originally sourced from sugarcane, but also naturally occurring and endemic in North America – ensured a more direct path to commercialisation since no genetic changes were required.

Reduced fertiliser application rates

In terms of on-farm use, Berg says Envita is an “agile” product. More specifically, he says farmers looking to reduce their nitrogen and keep yields the same can do so by combining reduced fertiliser application rates with his company’s biological input. Alternatively, the bacteria can be used alongside regular (unreduced) fertiliser rates to push for high yields.

2018 saw 50 Envita field trials in 10 American states. For results in corn, says Berg, combining Envita with a 27 per cent reduction in nitrogen fertiliser can produce the same yields.

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“If a farmer wants to keep with their traditional fertiliser program […] we will get a range of 5 to 15 per cent yield increase,” Berg says. “If a grower is looking for more productivity, they can go with 100 per cent [fertiliser] and Envita.”

Middle application range

But these points are what Berg refers to ask “bookends.” Now he and his colleagues are researching the middle application range. That means looking for “a sweet spot” where one can hypothetically drop nitrogen fertiliser rates by, says, 10 per cent and still achieve a yield increase.

Cost and availability of Envita

Currently the price of Envita is $ 9.75 (USDA) per acre. According to the Azotic website, this cost can be offset by “as little as” a one per cent yield increase. At 175 bushels of corn per acre (a very general average for some American states), for example, Berg says a 5 per cent increase at $ 3.50 per bushel brings an extra $ 31.50 return for each acre.

“That’s kind of what we’ve dialed in. We want to make it a no brainer and price it in so farmers can look at it and there’s no down side,” says Berg.

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Nolan Berg: "We have yet to find a crop that Envita does not successfully colonise."- Photos: Azotic North America
Nolan Berg: "We have yet to find a crop that Envita does not successfully colonise."- Photos: Azotic North America

Expanding in the United States

Azotic is currently expanding in the United States – the largest North American market. Berg says they are also in the process of moving manufacturing to the country, from the United Kingdom, in order to keep up with demand.

He adds that regulatory approval in the United States happens on a state-by-state basis. As of this writing the product is registered in 38 states, including California.

“As soon as we say that people understand it’s real […] In California you have to prove efficacy more than any other state.” Says Berg. Envita is not currently registered in Canada.

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