Why Trialing Plant Biostimulants Is Worth the Investment

Biostimulant hot pepper trial

Dr. Carlos Lazcano, Director of R&D at J&D Produce Inc., says as he was trialing a biostimulant in hot peppers when he noticed one particular field had high pH and high salt. The peppers grown in that field were very curvy and would be less desirable in the fresh market. While Lazcano says this can be a common occurrence in hot pepper production, he noticed with the the use of a biostimulant, the peppers in this trial were less curvy.
Photo by Carlos Lazcano

Working with biostimulants is both a monetary investment and a time commitment, says Dr. Carlos A. Lazcano, Director of R&D at J&D Produce, Inc. in Edinburg, TX. Before introducing biostimulants in your production, it’s crucial to begin with a small trial to see whether biostimulants would benefit your crops. We spoke with Lazcano to get a few tips for growers looking to get started with biostimulants. Here are his suggestions.

KNOW YOUR NEEDS — Under-standing the types of stress your crops go through during a season can help you decide which biostimulants would fit your production. Stress can come in many forms, including low or high pH, excess moisture, excess salt, soil diseases, or high or low temperatures.

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“What we’re looking [for with] a biostimulant is to have better conditions for the root system to be able to uptake the nutrients,” he says. “They’re going to do that efficiently, and we’re going to end up saving money in fertilizer inputs or getting more marketable yield.”

FIND THE RIGHT MATERIAL — Lazcano avoids high-percentage nitrogen-based biostimulant formulations.

“I try to stay away from products [with a] high nitrogen percentage because they will provide color and fast growth, however, nothing substantial. If a product cost is $10 an acre and only gives me color, I can accomplish that in a cheaper way,” he says, “There’s a minimum [result] I want — better crop setting, better plant structure, better root system, better size, and better marketable yield.”

He says he likes to look to microbes and or amino acids with mid-term results.

“I’m not interested in anything that needs to be applied closer than 15 days [apart]. I like anything between 15 days and a month,” he says. “If the biostimulant can give me a constant effect during this period of time, I think it’s a winner.”

START EARLY — It’s safe to assume that the earlier applications are made in the growing season, the more initial benefits your plants will be able to obtain. For vegetables, Lazcano says he’ll apply biostimulants as early as first or second irrigation in seed germination.

“It is important to work with biostimulants that are applied early during development to help the root system get established and be able to provide a more uniform crop growth,” he says.

START SMALL — It’s best to evaluate between two and four separate biostimulants in a given year, Lazcano says. Any more than that could be a challenge to the grower to follow up closely enough to collect important information.

SETTING UP SHOP — Lazcano usually sets up vegetable trials about 2 to 5 acres in size, and orchard trials 5 to 10 acres. For vegetable plots, it may make sense to use the size of an irrigation valve as your determining factor for plot size. He says growers should make sure to use the centers of a field or orchard for evaluation. This is designed so he can get an actual read on the effectiveness of the products and to account for any drift. He also spaces out his sections to be sure the product applied is working on the specific plants he’s evaluating.
“I leave a buffer zone in between the treatments and control,” he says.

DON’T FORGET A CONTROL — In order to see whether the products you’re trialing are worth your time, you need to be able to see a benefit — both in plant health and in yield. An equal-sized control plot will allow you to compare your products trialed.

“The control is going to give you opportunity to determine if there is a benefit given by a biostimulant tested or not,” he says.

DON’T SCRIMP ON TESTING — Full label rates and any recommendations the biostimulant manufacturer has for mixes are important to follow, especially in the first year of trials. It is imperative to understand what the product does at recommended rates and timing to determine the potential benefits during the season on a consistent basis. He says mix products only if the company recommends it and it’s on the label.

SCOUT AND SCOUT AGAIN —Lazcano doesn’t keep track of field data per se. He says biostimulant results are more about overall plant health and better yields, and those can be visible through simple field scouting. He does recommend walking your field or orchard and keep track of observations, especially when comparing your control to some of the other products tested.

He says it’s also important to take a team approach. Have several people scouting the fields, in case you can’t be there all the time. This way, observations can be shared with the team.

Lazcano describes an example of anecdotal observation made a few years ago when he was trialing products in peppers. One field had high pH and high salt, and he noticed just by adding a biostimulant at the start of the season, the crop had better quality and less curvy peppers, making them more marketable.

“Understand what happened with the interaction with the soil-root system and the biostimulant effect on the crop performance,” he says.

Your observations, compared to the control, will help you analyze the results.

HARVEST DATA — The most important part of assessing whether your biostimulants made a difference to your crops is yield data. Be sure to harvest and analyze each trial plot separately, including the control. Lazcano says it’s important to communicate to your packinghouse the need for separate trial data and readings.

Label all bins, containers, and baskets to avoid data errors at the packhouse. Record things such as yield, size, sugars, cull rate, and marketable boxes. It’s also good to assess length, thickness, color, and overall quality to help you get a good read on the benefits of the biostimulants used.

“I’m able to have marketable data that we can use to put together the information,” he says of the harvest data collected during that year’s trial. “We could determine if this could be replicated year in and year out.”

DO IT AGAIN — So you had noticeable results with your first year of trials at the highest application rate. That’s great, Lazcano says. Now plan to replicate the trial again next year.

“If you find a biostimulant with potential, keep it in a bigger trial after understanding the areas that were positively affected, such as size, yield, etc.,” he says, “If you have a good response or a reasonable response at the highest rate, then you can work backward to determine which rate is best for you.”

DON’T ‘BUDGET’ ME — Budgets are a critical part of production and no doubt influence on-farm decisions. Lazcano says growers can get budget blind, where they aren’t willing to take a chance on biostimulants based on the cost per acre of material, but they’re unable to understand that the end result of higher yields will likely justify their use.

“The grower needs to get out of that comfort zone of budgeting,” he says. “You cannot expect to get more if you are only supplying so much. If I apply $300 more per acre, it could be a great investment if I am getting 300 more cases per acre.”