Biocontrols are becoming much more established in greenhouse production. In some cases, it’s the next generation of growers that’s helping to support the adoption of this next generation of pest control.
Travis Higginbotham, R&D Manager for Battlefield Farms, in Rapidan, VA, is a great example. Brought on in 2014, he is helping Battlefield take the next step in product development, as well as become more efficient as a business and adapt to new technologies and demands from their customers with a more proactive approach.
Higginbotham will share information on Battlefield’s nematode program at the Biocontrols USA 2016 Conference and Expo, March 3-4, 2016 in Monterey, CA. We asked him about the details involved with building a new biocontrols program, as well as the future of sustainability in greenhouse production.
Q: What are the differences in costs involved in using biocontrols? What costs should growers consider, aside from the hard costs of the products?
Higginbotham: This is a hard question and one that I get asked all the time. Initial investment with time required to educate on change is significant, even with strategies for foggers and other machinery to maximize application. Trialing and R&D is crucial if you don’t want to waste time in production with problems, mistakes, and outbreaks due to multiple factors influencing success.
There are also some costs you may be able to reduce by using biocontrols related to re-entry interval (REI) times and personal protective equipment (PPE). With many bios and beneficials you do not even have an REI, which saves time for sales, growing, shipping, etc. PPE and the time you have to take for upkeep of filters and masks and employee handling of all this, as well as ordering is also something to consider. Can you put a cost on employee safety? We say yes.
As far as product, beneficial insects and fungi, oils, other microorganisms, and green chemicals can vary in costs. You have to keep in mind that one beneficial insect may have the ability to attack three different pests. If mastered, you are saving on three different products, perhaps, with one beneficial insect. One nematode product application can prevent soil drenches of certain chemicals and pests vectoring viruses cost efficiently and REI-time free.
Q: Why are nematodes a good place to start with biocontrols? What makes them easy to use?
Higginbotham: Nematodes are concentrated in liquid. These microorganisms have the ability to be stored for long periods of time and can be applied through your irrigation system. This is the easiest to use and, being in the soil, you do not have to worry about the end consumer seeing residues or live insects — beneficials or pests — on plants. Nematodes are limited but can be one of the most, if not the most, crucial part of a sustainable bio IPM program due to their versatility in handling, control, and multiple species.
Q: What is the learning curve in implementing nematodes/biocontrols? How much time should growers expect to invest in this process?
Higginbotham: With some nematode products on the market there is not much learning, nor too much change except to understand the time to apply and temperatures to apply for viable effectiveness. The learning comes in when you want to attack other pests that are not on the label and want more options. Also, when you start to understand that you can rear your own and extract directly from a host, you will find your effectiveness [may] surpass the typical packaged products.
Q: What is the key to using biocontrols and biologicals, and how can growers most effectively protect their investment in developing sustainable solutions?
Higginbotham: Knowing your targeted pest and focusing on prevention is key. For example, when applying nematodes for western flower thrips, make sure the thrips you are preventively applying for is in fact western flower thrips, which pupate in the soil. The pest you may actually have is chili thrips, which does not pupate in the soil and will not be affected as efficiently.
Use past experience and known environmental factors — moisture levels, temperatures, light intensities, hot spots in your facility — to make decisions on applications and timing.
Take advantage of the time saved making fewer sprays, filling up spray tanks, and getting suited up, and use that time to focus on scouting. Learn, prevent, scout, and apply. And understand there must be a level of acceptable damage in the early stages of some crops in order to have pests for beneficial insects to feed on.
Q: How are growers changing their practices to become more fully sustainable, and how do you think the next generation of growers will impact this change?
Higginbotham: I believe growers are having to truly be accountable now with not only crop protection agents, but also fertilizers, plant growth regulators, media, and even down to good water management practices and the type of pot/tray materials we are using. Many of these topics have been changing over the years for the better, but we are now under the magnifying glass of the end consumer and we are being forced to change immediately to satisfy this concern. Growers are having to understand the impact of all active ingredients, how to minimize volume while still achieving the desired objective, how to maximize coverage of all applications with new investments of new technologies, and how to have a preventative approach to disease and pest issues with a more determined/focused mindset.
The next generation of growers, I hope, is being taught these new strategies at the university level and come in with sustainable growing practices in mind. For example, I am teaming up with Virginia Tech and Clemson, and hopefully other universities in the near future, to teach on environmental impact and how the green industries are changing in this regard. We need to influence the teaching, and then our new growers will be more prepared to take it on. I also believe the millennial generation, me included, find this to be our responsibility and have a certain level of self-motivation for this. Time will tell.