How are Microbiome Activators Different from Biologicals?

Getting the Most Out of the Soil

At a glance, soil may seem static, but growers know there’s a world of life beneath the surface and soil health plays a vital part in crop success. And it’s not just earthworms and insects down there; tiny microbes and fungi support healthy plants, improve nutrient efficiency, and even fight disease. Without the help of those miniature organisms, growers often struggle to improve yield and maintain crop health. 

Keeping microbes operating at peak performance can be tricky — it’s hard to keep track of the health of something you can’t see. Adding compost or other organic material to the soil, planting cover crops, and reducing tillage can support a healthy microbiome, but growers can also apply products to impact microbial function, either as a biological or microbiome activator like SOURCE™. And although both affect the microscopic ecosystems within soil, the differences between the two are vast.

The Basics

How a microbiome activator differs from a biological may not be clear to some — after all, both aim to improve the soil microbiome — but there are some key differences in both form and function. While biologicals add more live organisms to the soil, microbiome activators work with the existing microbes to increase nutrient availability.

Biologicals are generally live organisms applied to the soil or to a plant, either to affect nutrient efficiency, fight disease or insects, or even to fight weeds,” explains Joel Lipsitch, Sound Agriculture’s VP of Product Management and Marketing. Companies have colonized these organisms, multiplied them, concentrated them, and put them into a container. That is what will be applied to the living agricultural system.”

A microbiome activator, on the other hand, doesn’t contain live material at all, and it doesn’t affect the kind or number of microbes in the soil; instead, it activates the microbes that are already there. 

SOURCE, Sound’s microbiome activator, is a bio-inspired chemistry that was developed based on an understanding of how plants, microbes, and the environment interact and support each other. It activates the nitrogen fixing and phosphorus solubilizing microbes already present in the soil to boost in-season nutrient uptake, which can increase yield, improve soil health, and reduce reliance on chemical fertilizers. 

Field Application

When it comes to biologicals and microbiome activators, understanding what’s in the box is the first step. The next is figuring out how to get it into the soil. 

Although biologicals can be effective, Joel explains that handling and applying them can be a hassle. Typically they’re applied during planting and often with special equipment,” he says. Many farms are not set up for that.” 

And remember, biologicals contain live materials, meaning they have a shelf life, compatibility considerations, and need to be stored at specific temperatures. Joel says temperature storage is particularly challenging on a farming operation because temperatures can fluctuate significantly. When growers are ready to activate the microbes, the temperature needs to be just right at that moment,” he says. 

Microbiome activators like SOURCE contain no live materials, making storage and application simpler. With a wide application window for corn — from V4-R3 — SOURCE can provide nutrients when they are most needed by the plants. And no special equipment is required; growers can simply add SOURCE directly to their tank with an early-season herbicide or a late-season fungicide for easy application. 

Success with SOURCE

To deliver the highest quality product with the greatest return on investment, growers work to create the ideal conditions for crop health and high yield. Today, growers have more control over the factors influencing these conditions than ever before, but there are still elements outside of a grower’s control. 

Broadly speaking, yield is a function of genetics, the environment, and management,” says Joel. SOURCE works across the vast majority of environments, so growers can focus on genetics and using our products as a part of the management process.” With biologicals, he says, the environment still plays a significant factor in a product’s success. 

Joel says a common approach is to apply biologicals or other soil-boosting solutions broadly throughout a farm and hope for good results everywhere. But this method doesn’t take into account differences within or between fields. Based on data from field trials, the Performance Optimizer allows growers to model SOURCE’s efficacy with their own unique field conditions. Inputting three key pieces of data for a specific field — OM, pH, and CEC — will provide growers with a performance indication based on expected yield lift. We’ve given growers a model that indicates how SOURCE will perform on a given field and we’ll stand by that with our Performance Promise,” says Joel. 

Predicting performance with the living organisms of a biological is much more difficult because the environment piece of the equation plays a significant role in the products’ success. It’s truly distinctive to be able to model where SOURCE will perform best,” says Joel. 

With something as out-of-view and complex as a microscopic ecosystem within the soil itself, it can be hard to understand how specific products actually work, says Joel. But the science and research behind SOURCE’s microbe-boosting power provides the foundation that allows growers to prioritize where to use the product to achieve the best outcome. 

We know how our product works and we lead with the science,” he says. I think that’s distinctive.”