Understanding Inoculation Techniques For Legumes

Inoculum is not magic dust — it contains bacteria that must be kept alive. According to Penn State Extension, all packages of inoculum have an expiration date. After this date, the bacteria may not be alive and the inoculum should not be bought or used. Heat and direct sunlight kill bacteria in stored inoculum, even while packaged. Since a short period of heat can reduce the number of live Rhizobia, the package should be kept in a cool place and out of direct sunlight — even when taking it home from the store (keep it off the dashboard). The preferred storage place for inoculum is the refrigerator (do not freeze).


Live bacteria may be added to the soil (direct-soil application) or to the seed (seed-applied inoculant).

Direct-soil Application

Granular forms of inoculum may be placed in the seed row via the insecticide box of a planter or through the fertilizer or grass seed box of a drill. (Clean the box before inoculum is placed in it.) The granules flow freely through field planting equipment, and their flow should be calibrated and metered.

Frozen or concentrated liquid cultures of inoculant may be diluted to a slurry, then added to a water-filled tank for spray application into the seed row.

Inoculant should not be mixed with either pesticide or fertilizer if applied to the seed row. When seeding forage legumes, it is recommended that fertilizer be applied separately.

Application of inoculant directly to the soil has been quite effective. However, the greater surface area being covered by the inoculant required more of the material. This is especially the case when narrow-row soybean planting is practiced. Therefore, the method is more expensive than seed inoculation.

Seed-applied Inoculant

Inoculum to be mixed with seed before planting is available on a variety of carriers; the most common carrier is peat. Peat has proven to be better than most other carriers in preserving live bacteria under unfavorable conditions (high temperature, late planting).

Inoculating seed
When inoculating seed, two conditions must be satisfied to get good nodulation:

  1. The roots must be in contact with the Rhizobia bacteria, and
  2. The Rhizobia must be alive and able to infect the plant root.

For the bacteria to be in contact with the roots of every plant, inoculum should cover each seed. To achieve the best distribution, the inoculum should be mixed with seed in a large space rather than in a planter seedbox—on a tarp-covered floor, in a tub, in a cement mixer (paddles removed), or in the bed of a pickup.

Using an adhesive (also known as a sticker) helps the inoculant to adhere to each seed. This is especially important with small-seeded forage legumes, which need more inoculant per unit of seed-surface area. Both commercial and homemade stickers are effective. A homemade sticker can be prepared as a 1-in-10 dilution of syrup or molasses, diluted cola or milk also can be used.

Mix seed with enough sticker to just moisten all seeds. Too much liquid may cause premature germination of the seed. To the moistened seed add inoculant and mix to coat the seeds. Air dry by spreading the coated seed in the shade. Drying may be speeded by adding additional peat-based inoculant or finely ground limestone. The seed must be dry to flow properly through the planter. Calibrate the seeder with inoculated seed when setting desired seeding rate. Seed should be planted as soon as possible after inoculation because bacteria begin to die in the drying process. If not planted within 24 hours, reinoculate.

The rate of inoculant to use depends on the amount of time elapsed since the legume was last grown in that field and on the conditions for bacteria survival at the time of planting. Start with the manufacturer’s recommendations. If the soil is dry and germination of the seed is expected to be delayed, then a higher rate of inoculant is required to make up for loss of some Rhizobia. For soybeans being planted into a new field, three times the normal rate of inoculant is recommended. A good way to achieve this is to moisten the seed with liquid inoculant applied at the normal rate, then mix seed with twice the normal rate of peat-based inoculant.

Preinoculated Seed

Forage seed may be purchased already inoculated. One of two methods of preinoculation is generally used: (1) impregnation with Rhizobia by a vacuum process or (2) pelleting with fine limestone. The pelleted type of preinoculated seed is generally preferred on the basis of research that shows that bacteria live longer on the pelleted seed and that this type of preinoculated seed results in formation of a greater number of root nodules.

Preinoculated seed should be handled in the same way as packaged inoculum. Several precautions can ensure better results. Check for an expiration date on the seed-bag tag, store and transport the seed out of direct sunlight and heat, and plant the seed as soon as possible. If you believe that bacteria may have died, then reinoculate the seed. Since water or the sticking solution causes the lime content of pelleted seed to gum up, use mineral oil (0.5 to 1.0 of oil per lb of seed) to adhere new inoculum to seed. Plant immediately.

Read the full story on the Penn State Extension website.

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