Alltech: bacteria offer untapped potential for improving cereal crop health

By Lynda Searby

- Last updated on GMT

Alltech's crop science research programme has three strands: improving yields, boosting nutritional value and mitigating the threat of mycotoxins
Alltech's crop science research programme has three strands: improving yields, boosting nutritional value and mitigating the threat of mycotoxins

Related tags Metabolism Bacteria Alltech

Scientists on Alltech’s crop science programme are working to make crops ‘healthier’, by harnessing microbes that can boost their nutritional value and disease resistance. 

In an exclusive interview with FeedNavigator, Alltech crop science expert Robert Walker, said: “A healthier crop isn’t just about yield – it’s about resistance to disease and nutritional value. If corn is higher in sugar and free of mycotoxins, it makes better silage.”

He said this represented a different way of thinking for feed producers, who, up until now, had only considered the volume, not the nutritional value, of the corn they were buying.

He drew a parallel to fruit, saying “an apple today has eight times less the nutritional value it had 50 years ago. The same has happened in cereals, but at the same time, animals are demanding more nutrition. Our programme is restoring the nutritional value – for silages I’m talking sugar, energy and digestibility.”

Microbes against mycotoxins

One of the latest discoveries to come out of Alltech’s European research facility at Dunboyne, Ireland, is a bacteria strain that is capable of protecting crops against the fungal pathogen fusarium oxysporum​, by colonising the plant surface.

“Fusarium oxysporum is notorious for reducing yield in covered crops. When you spray the seed or very young plants, you end up with an invisible bacteria that prevents fusarium oxysporum from attacking that plant,” ​said Walker.

That particular finding, which has come out of Alltech’s experience in yeast, bacteria, algae and fungi, is currently undergoing laboratory testing.

Researchers at the centre have also found that Alltech’s product Soil-Set – which contains enzymatic compounds that aid in root development and growth by activating soil microflora – can improve resistance against take-all disease in wheat.

Walker said Alltech was screening other microbes to determine which might have an effect on the major diseases affecting cereals.

“We’re a major producer of living organisms so we have the capacity to find novel bacteria, fungi and yeasts that can help plants grow better, take-up more nutrition and build resistance to disease,”​ he said.

Developing delivery mechanisms

Just as important as the discovery of the microbes themselves is the development of delivery technologies, according to Walker.

“It’s one thing bringing something to market, but another bringing something that farmers can actually use. The microbes are living organisms and need to be applied to the plant at the right stage in their life, so micro-encapsulation is key. It’s also about what we encapsulate them with, to keep these microbes viable all the way to the plant,”​ he explained.

Boosting nutritional value

Harnessing the microbial population at large in the soil to restore organic matter could be key to boosting the nutritional value of crops.

“UK soils are low in organic matter; they have been farmed for thousands of years and there is a need to get organic matter back into the soil. Humans have only identified 1% of the microbes in soil. A big area of research is tapping into the other 99% to find microbes that can help the plant defend itself and take up more nutrients from the soil,” ​said Walker.

In this area, Alltech has already commercialised a product which helps the ‘agribione’ - the population of living organisms in the soil - and reduces non beneficial organisms for a healthier eco-system.

Using microbes to achieve more efficient breakdown of residue from previous crops can also help improve the nutritional value of crops, suggested Walker. “There will be a lot of organic matter and crop trash left over. This needs to be broken down as a lot of goodness is locked into the residue and needs to go back into the soil.”​ 

The other aspect of boosting the nutritional value of crops is improving the health of the plants themselves. This could be by increasing photosynthesis so the plants have more energy to grow stronger roots and resist diseases, said Walker.

“It’s about fine-tuning the metabolism of the plant. If you can do that you get better use out of your input. It’s an add-on to conventional methods.”

Global roll-out

The research undertaken at Alltech’s Dunboyne facility is mainly applicable to crops farmed in Northern Europe and Canada, such as maize and oilseed rape. Walker said Alltech had plans to replicate its crop science research programme in other parts of the world over the next five years to provide region-specific research. 

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