1990 - Volume #14, Issue #2, Page #04[ Sample Stories From This Issue | List of All Stories In This Issue | Print this story | Read this issue]
He Plants Earthworms With Crops
Kreitzer, who owns farms near Elliott, Ill., has engineered a method to "plant" earthworms in fields at the same time the crop is planted, using "melt away" gelatin capsules containing earthworm eggs.
The University of Illinois is conducting three-year earthworm research test plots on his farm and he has joined forces with investors to form a company called Advanced Biotechnology Inc. (ABI) to market earthworm egg capsules under the brand name ET Seeds« (ET stands for Earthworm Tillage).
"Earthworms increase crop yields by burrowing to improve the soil's water in-take," says Kreitzer. "Dr. Bill Becker, re-search director for ABI, has calculated that the burrowing done by 1 million earth-worms is equivalent toadding about 4,000 ft. of 6-in. tile per acre-to your farm. Earth-worms also speed up the process of converting nitrogen in crop residue to useful levels during the growing season. They ingest much of the non-available nitrogen tied up in crop residue and excrete the digested material into plant-available form. Our re-search may even show that a healthy earth-worm population may entirely eliminate the need to purchase phosphorus and potassium.
"Unfortunately the farming techniques of the last several decades have destroyed the earthworm populations in many fields. Most destructive of these techniques is the practice of tilling the fields after harvest in the fall, leaving little debris to cover the soil during the winter. The lack of ground cover removes valuable organic residues and disturbs the insulating barrier that protects earthworms. This combination of a reduced food supply and a fast ground freeze is the number one killer of earthworms. My goal is to help farmers restore their earthworm population to beneficial levels."
Earthworms reproduce by laying a co-coon. The number of eggs inside the cocoon varies depending on the species. Under ideal laboratory conditions, earthworm eggs hatch in 3 to 6 weeks. However, the eggs hatch only when soil temperature is right. At 3 months of age the earthworms are old enough to produce their own cocoons. Kreitzer says he'd like to see a minimum seeding rate of one earthworm capsule per 100 sq. ft. or435 capsules per acre which would eventually multiply to a population of 23 earthworms per sq. ft., or 1 million earthworms per acre. "This sounds excessivet, but the soil can easily support 2 to 3 times that amount," says Kreitzer.
Kreitzer and Eli Lilly Co. are working together to develop an automated process for encapsulating earthworm eggs in gelatin capsules. The earthworm cocoon inside each capsule will hold up to 20 eggs depending on the earthworm species.
The cocoon will be coated with a sub-stance that preserves the eggs to keep them viable until they're planted. The coating also adds weight to the cocoon to keep the capsule from shifting to the top of the planter box, ensuring that earthworm eggs are distributed evenly in the soil.
University of Illinois agronomist Thomas Bicki is testing two tillage systems and four worm seeding rates in a corn-soybean rotation. The tillage treatments include fall paratilling and no-tilling. No insecticides are applied to the earthworm plots. Native earthworms in the zero worm plots are killed with insecticide.
Kreitzer figures a common "planting" rate would cost $10 to $20 per acre. He has been exhibiting at farm shows to assist the University of Illinois in raising money for the tests. "Because of limited money avail-able to land grant universities, we're asking farmers to help support this research. All contributions will be credited toward the purchase of earthworm capsules in the future and contributors will also be given the first opportunity to buy stock in the company. Contributions should be sent to Dr. Thomas Bicki, Agronomy department, Turner Hall, 1101 S. Goodwin Ave., University of Illinois, Champagne, Ill. 61801."
As a result of research, Kreitzer has also developed a miniature earthworm farm. It's similar to
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