Biologicals: Useful bacteria protect against pests and can increase yield

December 14, 2017, Reading time: 3 minutes

Bacteria are the extremists among living organisms. They live in 220-degree hot water, in strong acids or in sulfurous zones deep in the sea. And also some varieties of KWS sugarbeet seed.

The beneficial bacteria adhere to every seed in certain batches, after special seed treatment. “This is no coincidence, but the result of targeted processes during the pilling and seed treatment processes—and a lot of research work,” said Ralf Tilcher. He is responsible for the KWS “Biologicals” interdisciplinary workgroup. “In dry years and on marginal soil, bacteria can increase yield.” In view of these successes, the bacteria could therefore be used in the future with even more sugarbeet varieties.

Bacteria as valued helpers

Bacteria have become valued helpers of KWS and farmers because these beneficial organisms have developed untold capabilities in the course of evolution. They fix nitrogen from the air or produce plant growth hormones. After a long series of experiments, Tilcher and his colleagues are using a combination of different strains of bacteria, which they then incorporate into the orange sugarbeet seed pellet after special encapsulation.

Helpful army of one billion

After sowing in moist soil, these beneficial bacteria multiply very quickly to a billion helpers and develop their positive effect. Thanks to their large numbers, they occupy the seedbed environment and the growing root much faster than competing, often plant-damaging microbes.

Many advantages

This has several advantages: Firstly, the beneficial bacteria occupy the same place on the seeds and roots. Pests have fewer nutrients. In addition, bacteria can produce metabolic products that provide seedlings with protection against the cold, drought, high salt content of the soil or against harmful fungi. Last but not least, apart from the known nodular bacteria of legumes, there are other microorganisms that fix nitrogen and thus open up an additional nutrient source for the plant.

Interdisciplinary working group

Tilcher has been working on this topic for many years, for which the name Biologicals has been introduced. Knapp said: “We support the plants with beneficial bacteria.” “We” meaning a working group with experts from various KWS areas. Research and industry worldwide are now very active in the development and marketing of biologicals (as well as bacteria and fungi). The systematic search for, and testing for, products and approaches suitable for KWS, is one of the core tasks for the team. Tilcher and his colleagues cannot reveal which bacteria have brought success: KWS is not the only company that has recognized the potential of microorganisms for a higher yield.

Continuing trend toward fewer chemicals

For many years, one of the driving forces of the interdisciplinary group has been the unbroken trend towards fewer chemicals in the field. The public, politicians and authorities are demanding alternatives to chemicals in seed and plant protection in general. “This social pressure has been increasing for years,” observed Tilcher. For quite some time, important chemical seed treatment products for corn and rapeseed are no longer approved, and there are also restrictions on sugarbeet. Nevertheless, KWS wants to continue to offer farmers the best varieties in the future. The independent and family-owned company is researching numerous promising approaches, including biologicals.

Alternative tools

Bacteria are an alternative tool, with their seemingly immense biological potential. In his doctoral thesis more than 20 years ago, Tilcher already examined which microorganisms protected grapevines from aggressive fungi. He has continued this principle at KWS in seed treatment for years. The first commercial hurdles have been overcome: In Russia and Serbia, some of the larger customers are cultivating treated sugarbeet seed. With success: “On marginal soil and under drought stress, the yield in 2014 and 2015 was significantly higher thanks to the bacterial mixture, than in plants without bacteria,” said Tilcher.

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