Photo: Aaron Miller attaches a hose for uploading the nematode solution into a spray unit at Miller’s Spray Service in Lowville, NY. His business is one of several benefitting from the biocontrol developed by the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program-funded alfalfa snout beetle research project. Photo: NNYADP

Regional agribusinesses are the latest beneficiaries of the nearly 30 years of research dedicated by the farmer-driven Northern New York Agricultural Development Program to finding a solution to alfalfa snout beetle, an invasive insect that threatens alfalfa crops highly valued by dairy and livestock producers.

Through the scientific discovery process, Cornell University entomologist Elson Shields and research support specialist Antonio Testa discovered native New York nematodes as a naturally occurring biological control for alfalfa snout beetle, ASB, and pioneered the use of the insect-attacking, microscopic worms to reduce beetle populations to manageable levels.

The two scientists also developed a farmer-friendly, low-labor nematode rearing and application methods for farm-built and commercial sprayer units.

With training from Shields and Testa, regional crop service agribusinesses are filling an economic gap by offering custom rearing and application of the nematodes between planting and harvesting seasons. One spray service in the northern NY is developing its own nematode rearing facility for use in 2016.

In 2015, cost-sharing offered by the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program helped farmers to apply the nematodes on their own or with assistance from Cornell Cooperative Extension personnel or to hire a commercial applicator.

Shields reports that 14 farms applied the biocontrol nematodes for the first time, treating 986 acres by participating in NNYADP cost-sharing to hire commercial applicators. A total of 4300 acres received nematodes in 2015.

‘We estimate a total of nearly 14,000 acres of alfalfa have been inoculated with the biocontrol nematodes in northern New York since 2007 when the first field application plots were established. With a large acreage of alfalfa grown in the known ASB infested area, a significant acreage remains in need of protection to help bring this insect under widespread management,’ Shields comments.

Native to northern New York, the nematodes are adapted to persist and spread under regional conditions for many years, making one application to a field sufficient to prompt crop protection.

“When I heard Dr. Shields detail how the nematodes are helping to protect and restore alfalfa production, I saw the opportunity to protect farmer yields and investments with this service,” said Aaron Miller of Miller’s Spray Service, Lowville, NY.

Miller has offered nematode applications for the past four years.

‘The cost-sharing offered by the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program in 2015 helped prompt farmers who would never think of applying the nematodes previously. With milk pricing challenging, the cost sharing offered them the chance to take advantage of the biocontrol by using our service,’ Miller says.

Miller says clients often report a quick return: “Particularly when we apply the nematodes to every acre, the farmers say they see instant results in production that year. When we apply to one-third of the acreage, the return is seen over four to five years as the nematodes naturally spread through the field.”

The nematodes must be applied on cloudy days or late in the day when they are less exposed to the UV light that is fatal to them. The nematodes also need time to enter the soil after surface application.