Bill Becker has been on a mission most of his life to improve the crops of central Illinois. Known as the “crop doctor”, Becker treats crops almost like they were his pets. He recently had a breakthrough in treating nematodes – an insect that has plagued crops for decades.
Becker starts long before planting, taking soil samples for farmer clients. Based on his findings, he adds the nutrients the soil needs. Once the crops are growing and starting to mature (when the silks begin to brown for corn), he takes a tissue sample.
“It’s a feedback loop,” said Becker. “We look at 40 different ratios in plants which tell the nutrient balance. I know what was in the soil. We correlate that with the plant conditions, then devise a strategy to make it better. Once the yield is known, we know the contribution of the crop.”
The feedback has led him to finding a way to control nematodes – after 27 years of searching.
A combination of kelp meal, micronutrients, sulfur and (Redman’s) sea salt applied to the soil has led to improved yields and fewer nematodes.
It started as a research project on ground that was willed to the Illinois Department of Agriculture with a stipulation it be used for research. Becker was hired to conduct the research. Three years ago, he began to see a correlation with higher yields and sodium levels in the plants.
“I contacted Jack Erisman, an organic farmer, because I knew he used to add sodium to his soil,” said Becker. “We started in 2012 and that year instead of 3 to 4 pods per node in soybeans, we were seeing 7-8 pods per node. Typically that results in a bushel for pod, but then everything dried up, so we didn’t see the yield we expected. But, the county yield was 30 and we had 45.”
He tried again in 2013.
“We had a delay in planting – one field was planted in June, two others in July, really late. We still made 45-50 bushels per acre soybeans.”
He’s hoping 2014 is a more normal year – and that the sodium mixture results in bigger yields.
“This is out of the box for me,” said Becker. “I’ve been searching for this. And I think I’ve found the answer. It boils down to the predators of nematodes need salt. We’re feeding them, so there are more of them eating the nematodes.”
The amount of the sodium mixture is small – 19 ppm or less – compared to a window of 100 ppm that can be used in the soil.
“We have a lot of wiggle room,” he says.
He’s currently working with researchers at the University of Illinois to publish a paper on his research, and he plans an informational seminar to share the results with farmers and other landowners.
“It’s so exciting,” said Becker. “We’re getting an answer – finally.”