Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Features

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Boosting Seed's Natural Properties

The seed enhancement sector is experiencing huge growth with the introduction of new products and processes that improve the performance of seed. Read More
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Seeding Innovation

Crops aren't just for food or biofuel anymore—a look at exciting new uses for seed. Read More

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Watch the Channel

The big boys are squeezing the retail chain. Read More


sowingtheseedsofsuccess
The University of California—Davis Seed Biotechnology Center's Seed Business 101 course is accelerating the careers of promising new employees. Read More
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110 Minutes—An Unprecedented Opportunity

Approximately 1,150 participants, representing more than 350 firms worldwide, have now experienced the American Seed Trade Association Management Academy. Read More

 

The seed industry has grown accustomed to feisty competition among trait providers, but now they are about to see more fierce competition in the ag-retail sector.

Large players in the retail sector are growing fast and have plans to get bigger. That was the thrust of a speech by Tray Thomas of The Context Network at an Illinois Foundation Seed, Inc. event last December. “I can see a battle line being drawn between large co-ops and Agrium—and both are interested in seed,” he says.

Thomas and The Context Network have studied recent changes in the ag-retail sector. Co-operatives have been declining in number, but the volume of business for those remaining is up significantly. They are unique competitors who each have a complex business mix, which typically includes a wide array of products representing various proportions of their businesses. For instance, on average $16 billion is petroleum, $11 billion is fertilizer and just $4 billion is seed. 

 At the same time, consolidation is also affecting privately held ag-retail chains. Most notably, Agrium is growing at a rapid rate, investing heavily in channel acquisitions. The investment in distribution capacity is just one part of the company’s plan. Its model is to offer wholesale, retail and private label products from its vast fertilizer infrastructure. Considering fertilizer is growers’ largest expense, Agrium has a considerable advantage in the supply chain, with its capacity to offer discounts.

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Agrium, co-ops and traditional seed companies are likely to have very different sales forces, with completely different styles. For Thomas, the key to success, no matter what the sales force, is the ability to successfully assimilate the mass of information farmers face. Farmers are awash in details on seed varieties. What they need is a mechanism with which to compare apples-to-apples, and understand which varieties are the good performers, well-suited to their specific farming needs. 

Once, seed distributors had an innate advantage because they had access to varieties and details on their performance. Now, Thomas asks, “Is it really enough to just have seed information? Others have information on seed, fertilizer, crop protection and so on.”

Retailers, who have the capacity to help farmers with active information-gathering and evaluation of alternatives, have a critical influence on purchasing decisions. “There is value in problem solving for growers,” says Thomas.

The fact is that people have been talking about the shift between large-scale, mid-size and lifestyle farm operations for years. The concepts may be well recognized, but the inputs business remains mediocre at segmenting these markets and serving them well. Each market can be viable, but retailers are unlikely to successfully meet all the needs of each category. The ability to provide farmers with synthesized (which means short), dynamic (which means comparative) analysis will win market share.

Horticulturalization
That market share is likely to become more worthwhile as field crops are “horticulturalized”—a term Thomas coins to capture the added value associated with seed. Increasingly, the care once given to every precious vegetable seed through application of treatments and enhancers is now being used on field crops. Each unique stack of traits, every bit of underlying germplasm, needs to be given the maximum start. The culture of “value” is changing the interaction in seed.

The result will be a further proliferation of available products. “SKU management will be paramount,” warns Thomas. The ability to administer this and mitigate inventory risk is increasingly a factor in seed retailing success.

Thomas also cautions that price pressure is likely to grow. Even while seed is being treated as precious, increased competition in the retail sector is likely to continue driving down prices. Not only that, he predicts the next generation of traits for drought-tolerance and other stresses will make it harder to capture value. Each product’s complexity and the nuances of when it works will require an extra level of customer trust and support. For instance, when is it a drought? When is it just dry? And if a crop is already in crisis due to lack of water, how much performance is a reasonable expectation? These are tough questions that could come at tough times in a farmer’s growing cycle. Are seed sellers ready to answer them? 

The answers may not be easy. Nor is the introspection that Thomas prescribes. He encourages every seed retailer to look hard at its ability to segment the market, establish trust with those farmers, and provide the information each segment needs and the service the market requires. After all that soul-searching, seed sellers still need to compete on price too. It could all mean some members of the channel get tuned out. Robynne M. Anderson

   

The University of California--Davis Seed Biotechnology Center's Seed Business 101 course is accelerating the careers of promising new employees.

Attracting and retaining talented employees is a critical challenge for the seed industry. The Seed Business 101 course was created, with input from industry executives, to help new employees learn about the complexities of the seed industry.

“The main goal of Seed Business 101 is to expose participants to the five functional areas of a seed company: R&D, production, operations, sales and marketing, and administration,” explains Rale Gjuric, director of education at UC—Davis SBC. “By creating a virtual seed company and case studies for each functional area, the course content is delivered in a very interactive way. Our instructors bring a wealth of private seed industry experience. It is like a condensed virtual apprenticeship under the guidance of recognized industry leaders.”

The course was first offered last November at the Harris Moran Research Center in Davis, Calif.  It was attended by 19 participants, representing 13 diverse seed industry companies, who received instruction from distinguished seed industry leaders Maurice Smith, Pieter Vandenberg and Gary Whiteaker.

“It was an excellent course, and I had an outstanding experience working on my assignments with other members of the seed industry. The class covered excellent material, was very well organized and it was relevant to my work. I definitely recommend this class to anyone working in the seed industry,” says participant Nicholas Rios from Sakata Seed America.

Based on tremendous interest, additional courses were held in January 2011 in Boise, Idaho, and February 2011 in Yuma, Ariz. “Some seed companies that sent one or two participants to one session returned with three or four participants for the following session,” says Gjuric. “These companies clearly see the value in the course, which is the ultimate measure of the success of Seed Business 101. The interest is there, the awareness is increasing and we are confident that the course will continue to grow and evolve to fit the needs of the seed industry.”

Gjuric adds that while the course was created to shorten the learning curve of new employees, it can also be useful for older employees moving into new positions within the industry. “It also applies to people switching between industries,” he says. “This gives us a mix of participants in senior positions in their companies and younger new employees with two or more years of experience.”

sowingtheseedsofsuccess

Seed Business 101 participants receive practical information on the seed industry.

It’s all about helping employees be the best they can be. Participant Julie McElhaney of US Agriseeds sums it up best: “Seed Business 101 is a course that would benefit anyone in the seed industry. The course not only teaches you about the seed industry, but inspires you to be a better employee.” Julie McNabb

   

Exciting new genetics and cutting-edge technology are rapidly expanding the uses and markets for seed and seed-derived products.

New genetics, technology, ideas in nutrition and markets are continually shaping the crops we grow. The uses of corn and soybeans, along with lesser known crops, are being expanded.

Gordon Selling of the USDA Agricultural Research Service lab in Peoria, Ill., has a matter-of-fact approach to maximizing that value: “A kernel of corn needs to be looked at in the same fashion as a barrel of crude oil. To maximize profits, oil companies use every bit of oil they extract. Similarly, every bit of material present in a kernel of corn needs to be utilized to maximize revenue for the various businesses in the corn product stream.”

A kernel of corn has four main products: starch, oil, protein and fiber. These in turn can be sub-divided into smaller parts, each with unique market values. Selling and his ARS team deal mainly with corn protein, which subdivides into two broad types: corn germ proteins and endosperm proteins. The corn germ proteins have value as a component in adhesives, such as plywood glue. With additional research, future formulations could mean stronger glues and use less non-renewable material.

Soybeans also feature in the ARS agenda at the lab in Peoria, Ill. Zengshe (Kevin) Liu and his colleagues have developed soybean oil-based composites for use in a technique called solid free-form fabrication. This technique is used for making parts or other objects without using molds, and was developed by Paul Calvert at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Kaichang Li, a researcher at Oregon State University, has discovered that soy can also replace some or all of the formaldehyde resins in plywood, particleboard and fiberboard. Today, interest in soy glue is growing, especially because soy glue is stronger than formaldehyde products and comparable in cost. Through a process called “cross-linking,” Li was able to organize molecules in conjunction with another resin to create an adhesive that was strong enough to withstand degradation in boiling water.

Some manufacturers are experimenting with a combination of soy and formaldehyde adhesives. One company that makes finger-jointed wood products has successfully mixed a 50/50 percent solution of the two glues, which reduces the quantity of formaldehyde used and the amount of outgassing that occurs over the life of the product. Manufacturers have used soy in carpet backing, insulation, and as an additive to paints, stains and strippers. Soy hulls are used for human and animal food products. There is even a WD-40 lubricant in the making, due to soy’s high oil content.

Playing with Plastic

Consumer demand for environmentally-friendly products has given rise to several innovative products. Bio-Plastic Solutions of Blooming Prairie, Minn., is one of the nation’s first to blend corn starch-based polylactic acid with petroleum polymers to make extruded plastic furniture trim, drywall corner bead and interior wall guards. Meanwhile, Vinylite in Fergus Falls, Minn., is developing a soy-based polyoil insulation for window frames.

Nature Works LLC, based in Minnetonka, Minn., specializes in the production of Ingeo polymer, a plastic made from plants. The company just announced the future construction in Asia of its second manufacturing facility. Marketing director Steve Davies says making Ingeo is a completely new and innovative process. “Our technology is found nowhere else in the world and provides an eco-friendly option,” he says. “We’re in the business of turning greenhouse gases, namely CO2, into performance plastics.”

Products made from Ingeo polymer include apparel, bottles, cards, film, cartons, food packaging materials and the list keeps expanding as petroleum prices continue to drive up the cost of traditional plastics. And this new crop usage poses no threat to future food issues—at full capacity, the company’s Nebraska plant uses less than 1/20 of 1 percent of the available global corn crop.

Alternative Crops

Terry Isbell at the ARS facility in Peoria says researchers are also interested in several “new opportunity” crops with high oil contents geared for enriching the nutritional values of human foods and livestock feeds, improving the moisturizing value of cosmetics, adding lubricity to engine lubes, and lowering cholesterol in snack foods.
Crops being investigated at the Peoria ARS location include:

  • Pennycress is a potential new biofuels crop that has produced up to 2,200 pounds per acre in plot trials. And because it’s a winter annual, it doesn’t need to replace corn or soybean acres—it can be planted in the fall and harvested in the spring before spring seeding.
  • Coriander has an oil content of only 25 percent, but potentially is a good source of detergents and nylon 66. At this stage there is no commercial acreage of this crop in the United States.
  • Cuphea is also a crop for detergent markets. It produces C10 and C12 fatty acids.
  • Lesquerella is a winter annual that produces a hydroxyl oil. The crop is roughly 30 percent oil and could serve as a supplement or replacement for castor oil, an import oil used heavily in industry as a lubricant.
  • Meadowfoam, which fits in rotation with grass seed production in Oregon, “Produces really nice, stable long-chain oil very suitable in many lubricant applications,” says Isbell. Hair care products, skin moisturizers and many other derivatives are already in the hopper from this crop.

As new uses for crops continue to be discovered, it appears we’re just starting to scratch the surface of the value of seed. Dick Hagen

   

North American companies are developing, testing and marketing new technologies to improve the performance of seed.

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Seed enhancements are commonplace in North American agriculture—they are designed to improve seed’s germination and growth, make planting and harvesting easier, and deliver valuable nutrients and inoculants needed at sowing. Companies across the U.S. and Canada are introducing new products and processes to help growers adapt to changing climatic conditions while increasing profit margins.

Controlling Disease through Disinfection

Before seed germinates, its health can be enhanced by seed disinfection to eradicate seed-infecting pathogens from the seed coat, the embryo or both. Developed in Sweden by INCOTEC for field crops, and approved for commercial use in 2003, the ThermoSeed process is being adapted for vegetable seed disinfection and is currently available for some crops. This process will offer growers cost-effective control of fungal pathogens, improved seed vigor, and better crop emergence, density and yield.

“Having proven its qualities in field crops, much effort was made to adjust this method to other crops,” says Kortsen. “The positive results have now encouraged us to expedite the commercial ThermoSeed treatment of vegetable seeds.” Successful studies have been conducted on spinach, carrots, onions, Chinese chives, lamb’s lettuce, parsley, cabbage, peas, red clover, beans, sugar beets and tomatoes.

Innovations in disinfection don’t stop with ThermoSeed. Germains Seed Technology is now ready to launch goSeed Disinfection Spinach, a multi-stage disinfection treatment for spinach designed to reduce seed-borne fungal pathogens to almost non-detectable levels. As well as removing fungal pathogens, the new disinfection product promises to speed emergence and helps produce an overall healthier plant, according to Lucy Miller, marketing manager with the King’s Lynn, U.K. company. Data from North American trials shows that the treatment helps significantly reduce on-seed infection from verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, cladosporium leaf spot, stempylium leaf spot and leaf spot.

The company’s spinach disinfection technology will be available late this summer, pending approval from the EPA on a Section 18 Emergency Exemption. Ongoing trial work is taking place for a Section 3 Label registration, Miller says.

Getting Off to a Good Start

Seed priming is used to encourage seeds to sprout faster and with more uniformity after planting.  This is a process by which seed moisture content is increased to a very high level, when the seed is exposed to an optimal temperature, with the high moisture content maintained for a specific length of time. This starts the germination process without allowing radicle protrusion. Then the seed is dried to normal moisture content, and is ready to package.

Harris Moran Seed Company in Modesto, Calif., has developed LighteningStart, a seed priming process designed to improve the speed and uniformity of seed germination, especially under cool conditions.boostingseedsnaturalproperties2

“The key to superior seed priming is to tailor the process to the particular seed lot,” says Keith Kubik, seed physiologist with Harris Moran. “LighteningStart does this by characterizing each lot before priming, in order to determine the best priming moisture and priming length to use. This preliminary characterization, along with the very gentle, seed-friendly process, results in the more uniform, faster establishing seed that growers want.”

Giving seeds a head start is also the thinking behind Wolf Trax, Inc.’s PROTINUS Seed Nutrition product. A patented seed-applied fertilizer, PROTINUS provides plants with small amounts of nutrients right after they germinate, before they are mature enough to access soil nutrients on their own.

“By improving early plant nutrition, growers see the benefit in crop establishment, early-season growth, and the ability to withstanding challenging growing conditions.  This all adds up to better yield potential,” says Jennifer Bailes, Wolf Trax’s director of seed products and innovations, in Winnipeg, Man.

In addition to speeding up emergence by one to two days, treating seed with PROTINUS results in seedlings that are 15 percent larger, with roots up to 20 percent more developed. PROTINUS field trials have shown positive results for corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, cereals, forages, grasses and vegetable crops, says Bailes.

INCOTEC’s GeniusCoat is also aimed at boosting crop nutrition and stimulating root development and mass. “Fostering the seed’s miniscule nutrition requirements at germination triggers a chain reaction that affects the entire growth period, resulting ultimately in a significantly enhanced maximum yield potential,” says Brad Kortsen, INCOTEC’s sales and marketing manager.

Increased yield is one of GeniusCoat’s goals—stronger seedlings mean thicker stands, faster growth and more tillers. Data from 73 field trials, conducted by INCOTEC on wheat plots located on various continents and under varying climatological conditions, shows an average yield increase of 4.5 percent. Crops from seeds treated with GeniusCoat also have higher straw production and protein content, as well as better baking quality. 

In addition, INCOTEC, with the recent acquisition of AgriCoat, is offering Natural II, an organic seed treatment for spinach and other commercial vegetable crops that promotes growth.

Meanwhile, Novozymes is concentrating on the ever-growing North American soybean market with their patent-pending seed treatment CUE. The treatment, which uses isoflavonoids, gives seed companies the ability to differentiate between seed genetics and traits, while providing yield increases of one to two bushels. The company also offers REVV, containing similar technology, for cotton crops.

CUE and REVV trigger beneficial fungi in the root zone before the plant can naturally activate them. “They enhance the root structure, improving nutrient, water and phosphorus uptake to overcome environmental stress,” says Francis Leier, the company’s international business development manager.

Polymers and Pellets Help Growers

There is no question that seed treatments can boost plant development and growth, but only if the treatments stay on the seeds. Becker Underwood’s Flo Rite 1127 Concentrate for soybeans and Flo Rite 1197 for corn, canola, wheat and other crops are plantability polymers. A polymer can be added to a slurry tank and applied along with a fungicide and/or insecticide. The company says these polymers help reduce seed bridging and clumping during handling for improved flow during seed conditioning and treatment operations.

“Once applied to a seed, a plantability polymer will help growers maximize the yield potential of their high-value genetics by increasing seed drop accuracy, reducing planter skips and improving the uniformity of seed placement, “ says Stephanie Zumbach, product manager for seed enhancements.

Becker Underwood recently announced a lower application rate for Flo Rite 1127 Concentrate when only a fungicide seed treatment is used. “We recognize that some treaters choose to apply only a fungicide,” says Zumbach. “Our testing has shown the new lower three-quarters of a fluid ounce application rate for Flo Rite 1127 Concentrate will still give these treaters and their growers the benefit of controlling dust-off and improving plantability when they apply just a fungicide.”

Ball Seed, headquartered in West Chicago, Ill., offers Ball Controlled Growth seed, which is treated with a plant growth retardant to promote even germination and seedling growth for ease when transplanting. By using this coated or pelleted seed, the company says growers can save time and money by skipping one or two PGR spray applications.

Seed pelleting was developed using technology originally designed for the confectionary and pharmaceutical industries. The technology has taken off recently in the seed industry and is commonly used to round out irregularly-shaped seed or make small seed larger for ease of handling. PanAmerican Seed sells Fuseables Multi-pellets and SimplySalad which combine a mixture of two or three varieties of floral or lettuce seeds in a single pellet, making it easier for nurseries to offer baskets and pots of attractive mixes to their customers.

Seed industry technology will keep evolving to solve problems facing seed growers. Seed enhancements such as disinfection, priming, nutritional inputs, polymer application, coating and pelleting are some of the recent developments that North American seed growers can use to increase their bottom lines. Andrea Geary

   

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