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closeup of young corn plants
NITROGEN WHEN NEEDED: Pivot Bio is an ag startup with a biological product that creates nitrogen. Feeding off root exudates, the product lives and grows along with the corn crop, providing this key nutrient for a solid part of the growing season.

Nitrogen-making microbes show results

Tech startup Pivot Bio releases field reports showing the efficacy of its new product.

Nitrogen. It’s the fuel for a plant’s system that brings yield — and for farmers, profit. The requirement to apply nitrogen for crop success has long been established, but a California startup company is deploying a new way to get nitrogen to plants that, in 2018 crop trials, showed results.

The approach uses a biological product that produces nitrogen, and in crop trials, showed farmers could reduce or replace chemical nitrogen. Pivot Bio makes Proven, which is a nitrogen-producing microbe for corn. In its release, the company noted that across 11,000 on-farm research trials in multiple states, farmers saw an average yield bump of 7.7 bushels per acre, and a better return on investment.

Farm Progress talked with Mark Reisinger, vice president of sales, about those trials and what they mean for future crops. He explained the nature of the 2018 trials.

“Our first were proof-of-concept trials,” he noted. “We wanted to convince farmers that this is real. We went to 24 of the best growers that are also influencers and have a Twitter following. They’re also officers in commodity groups and yield contest participants.”

Using these influencers, Pivot Bio had them conduct a trial where these farmers used their best nitrogen practices; and on a similar field, or equal soil type, they used Proven as part of the nitrogen protocol. “We wanted to show efficacy of the product,” Reisinger said.

In the second trial, the aim was to work to reduce nitrogen used. “We had trials where in one field they used their best nitrogen practice, and then a second protocol where they reduced the amount of in-season nitrogen and replaced it with Proven,” he said.

This trial was done at land-grant universities and a range of other trial sites. And across those sites, Reisinger noted that users cut applied chemical nitrogen by 35 pounds per acre. In that trial, the yield produced — even with reduced N — was with a half-bushel of the traditional check.

Living product and corn roots
The Pivot Bio product is a biological, Bradyrhizobium, that lives off the exudate of corn roots. The product is furrow-applied, and the microbe reproduces as the corn plant grows. “The product will colonize along with the root, and there is a period of time that it has to reproduce before it starts to work,” Reisinger said.

He noted that the microbe is still colonizing on the root system by the V5 stage, and there’s a significant amount available to the plant from R1 through R4. “We wanted a microbe that modeled against the nitrogen demand of the corn plant,” he added.

Since this is a biological sustained by corn roots, it doesn’t “leave” the plant. Unlike traditional nitrogen sources, adverse weather doesn’t reduce the nitrogen available. The company found during its trials that under adverse conditions, including heavy rains or challenging soil types, the nitrogen-producing microbes recorded a stronger performance — with nearly a 17-bushel-per-acre average advantage against comparable fields where only chemical nitrogen was used.

For farmers considering use of Proven for 2019, the company is already sold out. Reisinger noted that the key was to get through proof of concept, and there will be trials farmers can check out. “We’re building this product to make sure we have a manageable number,” Reisinger said. “We prefer to be sold out.” That approach also ensures that the company can service what it sells. Lack of service and support can be a challenge for any startup.

At work, and the future
This is a biological product that comes in a closed-loop container. The microbe is in the cap. You simply twist the cap to break the seal and release the microbe into a growth medium. The farmer has to wait 48 hours before adding it to the liquid tank for in-furrow application.

“This is a durable microbe that can be mixed with other in-furrow treatments. It’s compatible with bifenthrin, imidacloprid and with fungicides — even other nutrient packages,” Reisinger said.

As for timing, if a farmer were to activate the molecule in the container and conditions change, stalling planting, the material is viable for up to 30 days. That gives a farmer some flexibility in case conditions change, which can happen at planting time.

The product is now registered in 21 states hitting even the fringes of corn country, including Wyoming, the Dakotas and Texas.

The company is already looking ahead to different formulations from seed treatment to other delivery methods. In addition, next-generation products using nitrogen-producing microbes that work with wheat, soybeans, sorghum and rice are in the works. The company has also entered into a partnership with Bayer to develop strains with enhanced nitrogen production for soybeans.

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