Biologicals in Row Crops: Building Towards a Brighter Future

Experts expect big things for biologicals in row crops — once the product choices are perfected.

For several years now, there has been an ever-growing interest in biologicals. Numerous growers across the country have experimented with and sometimes implemented using these kinds of pest controls/plant stimulants into their operations.


“Like everybody else, we have been looking at biologicals for our business,” says Brent Wallner, Vice President of Dealer Support at BRANDT Consolidated, Springfield, IL. “We are actively trying to put some marketing and research into those.”

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“Some farmers are constantly looking for something on the cutting edge,” observes Ron Geis, Market Development Specialist at Corteva Agriscience, about the desire to utilize biologicals. Primarily, adds Geis, these growers have tended to do business within the fruit/nut tree and specialty crop sectors of agriculture, however.

But in the row crop category, the penetration of biologicals has been a bit slower. In fact, according to a 2023 survey of ag retailers by CropLife® magazine, biofertilizers have increased their market share among row crop growers from 30% in 2018 to 50% in 2023. Likewise, biostimulants usage has grown from 60% to 73% over this same timeframe. However, for biopesticides, the usage rates have dropped, from 31% in 2018 to just 19% in 2023.

Why has this been the case with row crop growers? According to Geis, part of the reason likely ties back to the expectations growers have regarding crop protection products.

“We as an industry have grown up in a world of chemistry,” he says. “An acceptable level of control for traditional chemicals has been between 90% and 95%. Sometimes, we’ve even had 100% control in some weed cases. Biopesticides have not achieved that level of performance. For these, acceptable control rates are between the 70% and 80% level. Many growers aren’t willing to accept that level.”

Ag retailers echo this view. “We have multiple vendors coming through the door that claim their biopesticide products will perform in a consistent manner,” says Harlan Asmus, Co-Owner of Asmus Farm Supply, Rake, IA. “We haven’t found many biopesticide products that will perform in a consistent manner year-over-year.”

G. Chris Weed, Specialist – Adjuvants for KOVA Fertilizer Inc., West Chester, OH, also points to product performance for how his company decides on which biopesticides to support.

“We use what I call a premise,” says Weed. “The premise is a retailer, or a grower, has an amount he will spend in this product arena. He wants a recommendation from KOVA based on the products where we have seen consistent performance and a good return-on-investment. We are, and have evaluated products, from companies in the U.S. and all over the world. We move forward with these products that perform and eliminate those that do not perform.”

Instead of marketing biologicals as a stand-alone solution, at least one supplier is taking a complementary approach. “Some biopesticides in the past might not have worked well by themselves,” says Matthew Pye, Biologicals Subject Matter Expert at FMC Corp. “But we don’t market ours that way. We sell them as working in concert with our synthetic partners’ products in the U.S.”

For example, the company has recently developed a product called Ethos Elite LFR insecticide / biofungicide. Building upon the company’s Ethos XB brand, Ethos Elite LFR still uses a synthetic insecticide/biofungicide but replaces one biofungicide strain with two new bacillus strains. In the field, says Pye, Ethos Elite can be used in liquid fertilizer applications in corn and other crops. “We anticipate introducing Ethos Elite LFR to the marketplace in 2024,” he says.

The Advantages of Biologicals

Despite some market reluctance up until now, Corteva’s Reis says biologicals do offer several potential benefits to row crop growers. In particular, their ability to help manage resistance. In fact, according to statistics from USDA, more than 165 million acres of cropland across the country contained more than 200 different species of resistant weeds.

“We can’t talk about a field pest without talking about resistance — be it weeds, insects, or diseases,” he says. “Repeated use of something will lead to resistance. Utilizing biopesticides instead can vastly expand the availability of products that can give growers additional modes of action and add to the longevity of existing products by mixing things up.”

In addition, biologicals — in particular, biopesticides — also offer the benefit of being more selective in targeting pests, says Reis. “Take corn earworm, for instance,” he says. “Corn earworm is a serious pest because when it takes one bite out of a kernel, it ruins it. A biopesticide geared to control corn earworm would only control corn earworm, so any beneficial insects on the same plant won’t be harmed.”

To this end, several ag retailers are actively trying to promote the use of biologicals to their grower-customers. “We have a 300-plus acre research farm to test these kinds of products and identify the ones that can bring real value to the farmers,” says John D. Allen, Vice President of Agronomic Services at BRANDT. “Traditional, growers of fruit trees and specialty crops have been more receptive to these, but we want to get row crop growers to realize these best values, too.”

Although this kind of market vetting and education of row crop growers is helpful, Corteva’s Reis believes the future potential for biologicals lies in what control measures they can offer. “Biopesticides have got to attack the No. 1 concerns of row crop growers,” he says.

For example, resistant weeds such as waterhemp in the Midwest and Palmer amaranth in the Mid-South/Midwest have infested millions of acres of farmland. Insects such as corn rootworm cause an estimated $1 billion in yield loss each year. And crop diseases such as tar spot are rapidly expanding across all portions of Central U.S.

According to Reis, these are the kinds of field pests row crop growers are looking for help to control. “Show these farmers a biopesticide that attacks these things, and you will build more market use,” he says. “Right now, the franchise among biopesticides for these pests is weak. However, when it is found, bringing it to market should be much easier than it would be for a traditional crop protection product. Then you will see the usage rates increase quite quickly, I imagine.”

And one company appears ready to do just this with its new biological offering. According to Jim Cink, Director of Product Marketing, Biological Products at Indigo Ag, his company is introducing a bionematicide for corn and soybeans called biotrinsic Z15.

Indigo soybean plant comparison - Z15 (right) to untreated (left)

Indigo Ag soybean plant comparison: biotrinsic Z15 (right) vs. untreated (left). Photo credit: Indigo Ag

“Soybean cyst nematode (SCN) is a serious problem, and the scope of this pest keeps expanding,” says Cink. “It is estimated that this one pest costs the ag industry approximately $1.5 billion each year in lost yields — and that’s just in soybeans only in the U.S.!”

Up until now, most nematicides on the market worked by killing the pest. However, biotrinsic Z15 operates in a different manner, says Cink.

“The product employs a proprietary Streptomyces sp. bacteria strain that envelopes the plant roots to act as a protective shroud,” he says. “It works in harmony with the plants and interferes with the nematodes ability to access the roots. That negatively affects the nematode’s reproduction without actually killing them directly.”

According to Cink, Indigo Ag plans to formally launch biotrinsic to the industry by the end of 2023, with more widespread availability taking place during the 2024 growing season.