Skip to main content

A sustainable approach to integrated pest management

July 28, 2017

Through the incorporation of new technology, efficiency in crop production has soared; however, so has the demand for more sustainable management practices. Today, there is more scrutiny than ever before from consumers regarding conventional herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, and regulations are tightening.

“Complete replacement of synthetic chemistries is impractical for producers,” said Dr. Steven Borst, Alltech Crop Science compliance manager. “Unfortunately, however, we are running out of silver bullets.”

Borst believes the future of integrated pest management (IPM) programs will include the best tactics from a variety of approaches, including nutritional and natural technologies.

“Used in conjunction with the best conventional approaches, producers can reduce inputs while maintaining crop quality and improving sustainability measures,” he said.

Nutritionals: Giving crops the building blocks to defend themselves

A balanced plant nutritional program is a key component of an effective IPM program.

“If a plant is not healthy from a nutritional standpoint, it will not be able to defend itself against a potential pathogen attack,” said Borst.

Healthy plants can have a better chance of resisting disease pressures, and bioavailable micronutrients can naturally support plants’ inherent defenses.

“If you can trick a plant into thinking it’s going to be attacked, then the plant can develop its own metabolic pathways to fight the disease,” he explained.

However, plants are not naturally proactive.

“They are reactive organisms,” explained Brian Springer, CCA, Alltech Crop Science technical services manager. “They respond to their environments. Something has to trigger a reaction in a plant to be defensive, unlike an immune system that can react on its own. By using biologicals, such as nutritionals and activators, we can elicit a response in the plant.”

The dynamics between plants and their environment, including the complex microbial world in which they live, is being further researched by Alltech Crop Science and others. This week in an article titled “Scientists Hope to Cultivate an Immune System for Crops,” The New York Times reported that it is a dense ecological web to untangle.

Untangling the ecological web calls for a new approach

Efficient crop management is moving to a prescriptive/proactive management of inputs, rather than a reactive approach.

“We’ve been taught to scout fields, find what’s wrong and then fix it,” said Springer. “We’re moving to a new perspective where we can not only act on plant health, but also improve soil health instead of acting on disease.”

Better nutrient management, especially nitrogen, is a key component of this movement and is important to sustainability.

“The definition of soil health is different for every farmer, since every cropping system is different,” added Springer. “It’s important to find out what amounts of nutrients are going to be available during the growing season.”

This includes organic nitrogen in the soil that can be fed through amino acids. To this end, he mentioned that the University of Illinois is now including an analysis of amino acids as part of their soil sampling. The goal is to help reduce the amount of fertilizer applied to fields and hopefully improve the environment by minimizing application of excess nitrogen. An additional benefit of incorporating biologicals is that the nitrogen in the soil is not as volatile and won’t leach like nitrates.

Biofungicides are another tool in the natural crop protection arena. To read more about the use of this microbial technology in conjunction with conventional fungicides, click here.

A total systems approach

Alltech experts agree that a total systems approach will serve crop farmers best in the future.

“We continue to research how and when to use biologicals — whether it’s natural activators, foliar micronutrients, natural inoculants or biofungicides — with conventional methods in cropping systems to help producers with environmental stewardship,” said Borst.

“As any market progresses, we see increasing management of smaller and smaller pieces of the total system,” concluded Springer. “This is the next layer down that we are fine-tuning.”

Dr. Steven Borst was a presenter at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference. Audio recordings of most talks, including Steven's, from ONE are available by clicking the button below.