If you’ve ever wished for a crystal ball as you penciled in plans for soil-borne pathogens in corn and soybeans for the coming season, a relatively new California-based company supporting crop consultants in the Corn Belt and Mississippi Delta can take some of the guesswork out of that process — and likely save you some money.

Pattern Ag, based in Emeryville, Calif., specializes in cataloging and identifying soil-dwelling organisms in more than half a million acres of farm fields from the Dakotas south to Kansas and across the Corn Belt to Ohio. The company just released its free, public 2023 Predictive Ag Report  that highlights areas of concern for various corn and soybean pests for the coming year.

Pattern Ag has published similar pathogen-related outlooks for the area since 2019, but the 2022 and 2023 editions are the first publications released after company researchers and statisticians were convinced their testing and predictive protocols were reliable and took their services commercial.

While the public report outlooks are based on grower samples, individual farm records and recommendations remain confidential and are available only to the farmers and their crop consultants, says Mike Tweedy, Pattern Ag’s vice president of sales.

“I like to call the report the Farmer’s Almanac of what to expect after planting this season,” he says, noting the data behind the report is provably more scientific than that of the highly popular rural publication. “We look inside the soil biology of our farmer-clients’ fields using sophisticated DNA sequencing techniques to understand the pathogens that exist there and provide a precise report back to the grower before planting season about what pests, pathogens and beneficials exist in what part of their fields.”

Pattern Ag generally samples 10-acre grids and pulls 10-14 cores on those fields. Tweedy says all the pathogens they’re looking for are in the top 6 inches of soil. The samples are then sent to Pattern Ag’s lab, where DNA from each sub-sample is extracted and sequenced to assess all of the present biology.

“That’s about 10,000 different species and about 500 million microbes,” he says. “When you compare that with an existing soil sample that involves about 10 data points, we’re getting about 10 million data points. You can see the monumental jump in precision with what this process provides.”

Tweedy says nutrient sampling through Pattern Ag also includes Auto Scripts that allow growers and consultants to generate variable-rate nutrient-management prescriptions based on users’ preferred application rates or by cost per acre. Those Auto Scripts can then be exported to application equipment.

Where to Look

No-tillers sending samples to Pattern Ag not only find out what pathogens they likely will encounter in the coming season, but they also get a report on where to find them. 

“Our complex sampling and sequencing gain deeper insights for our growers by allowing them to map all of our data to make sub-field decisions on varieties, seeding rates and potential at-plant disease control measures,” says Danielle Watts, vice president of data services. “For instance, we can tell you this portion of your field has a lot of Pythium, and this other portion seems to be doing really well.

“We’re also able to gain greater insights because we can link our DNA findings with soil chemistry, soil type and topography. This precision allows us to make accurate predictions because some pathogens are weather-linked, and others are not. We’re able to bring those factors into focus and validate our insights to something that’s happening in the grower’s field.”

Positive ROI

Tweedy says Pattern Ag’s service has shown positive return on investment to growers. He gives the example of a customer who tested a number of fields that have been corn-on-corn for about 15 years to assess if choosing a hybrid with corn-rootworm (CRW) trait was necessary.

“What we found was more than half of those acres had no CRW presence at all,” Tweedy says. “The fields that did present with CRW only had it in small areas of the corners. The farmer decided quickly he didn’t have to spend that extra $100 an acre on CRW traits and could treat the infested corners with an in-furrow insecticide at planting.”

Tweedy says, surprisingly to many, his company’s testing across the entire footprint of its market area for the 2023 season indicates only about 45% of the fields have moderate to high levels of corn root worm eggs in them.

A soybean grower in southwestern Minnesota used the company’s services in the fall of 2021 and was surprised to see he had sudden death syndrome pathogen in his fields, something many local agronomists said was non-existent in the area.

“This guy had topped out at 65 bushels per acre on soybeans for the previous 5 years, and he began to understand why with his test results,” Tweedy says. “He also had some other diseases and a boron deficiency so he could better make decisions on traits for 2022 planting. It also suggested the need for a max rate seed treatment.

“He applied boron and used another seed treatment for Pythium and fusarium that were in the fields. He called us at harvest and reported an average of 82 bushels per acre. At $13.50 beans, he spent three-quarters of a bushel per acre on the test, and $12 for the seed treatment, so his ROI was massive.”

Continual Testing

Watts says in addition to providing soil analysis and DNA sequencing of pathogens, Pattern Ag is continually testing its predictive insights through research plots on cooperating grower fields across the Corn Belt and Delta area.

“We want to make certain our clients have high confidence that we’re not only testing their soil, but that we’re also able to give them a strong recommendation that what they have is only a background rate of a given pathogen vs. a really high rate that warrants critical attention,” Watts says.

“Each year we choose a set of topics to explore deeper, and through our Grower Initiative program, we test at farm scale with commercial growers to hone our knowledge and our insights. When we make a recommendation, we are making it based on tens of thousands of samples we’ve evaluated and said, ‘Look, your sudden death syndrome or Pythium inoculum load is orders of magnitude higher than the background rate or multiples higher, depending upon the pathogens and how they behave.’”

In 2022, the Grower Initiative recruited 30 cooperators and 97 fields to participate in two projects. In 2023 the company is recruiting 100 commercial fields to participate in a pathogen scouting program. The growers who take part will be part of the next generation of in-field pathogen risk assessment, Watts explains.

Pushing Yields

Tweedy says Pattern Ag works closely with crop consultants who offer growers the opportunity for the enhanced DNA testing of soil microbes, noting the company’s initial offerings concentrate on corn and soybeans because of the razor-thin margins commodity growers face in the market.

“I believe we have the genetic potential to be able to grow 400-500 bushel per acre corn, but we’re   nowhere near that across the board,” he says. “One thing we don’t understand is the very medium in which we plant our expensive hybrids.

“These deep insights are going to inform growers better with more informed recommendations concerning such things as potential annual ROI of certain hybrid traits based on actual microbial populations found in certain fields. There’s an old saying that farmers have 40 years to guess right, and what we’re doing is providing predictive insight so they don’t have to guess on some of those important and expensive decisions.”