In the world of agriculture, nothing is ever 100% sure. That’s why seed treatments play a huge role when tending to plants to help manage their stress, both biotic and abiotic. To help farmers understand their options when purchasing seed, Todd Steinacher brings in Dale Ireland of Syngenta Seedcare to discuss the best seed treatments to achieve the highest amount of yield possible. From reading the signs of plant diseases and driving pests away to designing the best seed packaging for maximum protection, they go deep on the most effective strategies every farmer must know in growing corn and soybeans. At the end of the day, all of us are biologists who have an innate talent to interact with every living thing, which can be showcased when taking care of crops.
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Take Action: Understanding Seedling Risk From Disease Feat. Dale Ireland
It’s been my continued goal to bring you agronomic conversations from industry experts. From these conversations, I hope that it can provide insight and perspective on decisions that can positively influence the coming crop. With that, I would like to introduce my guest, Dale Ireland. He is a Technical Product Lead with Syngenta, very specifically in Seed Care Division. Dale, welcome to the show.
It’s great to be with you, Todd.
Dale, as you sit back and think about where you are now, I’m sure you’ve had an agronomic journey that has led you here. I’m sure you’ve seen a lot throughout your time in the industry. Give us a background, the different types of roles that you’ve had, and maybe some takeaways of maybe projects or concepts you’ve seen over your time in the industry.
It has been a number of years that I’ve been in the industry. I’ve done everything from crop consulting out in Southwest Kansas for a few years, to working for a major seed company, both domestically as well as internationally. For another major seed and CP provider for another several year stint. Now in my role with Syngenta is doing R&D seed treatment work.
Across all those experiences, I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of change. To reflect on your time, what are some of the bigger insights that we’ve gained to forward growers in achieving higher yields?
At the beginning of my career as an agronomist, a seed agronomist or a crop consultant that was prior to any trans gene being in the marketplace. We had conventional crops, corn, soy, any number of different crops. There were normal, selective herbicide systems and the skill levels that we’ve had to return to because we now have a lot more selective herbicide use. Those are some of the biggest issues, all the fertility and everything, and the precision agriculture, all those things have happened. They’ve all been singularly focused at bringing more value per acre to the customers.
You can always look at the charts that USDA or even state by state produces each year. Seeing that trajectory, specifically on corn, how much bushels per acre we are increasing. It amazes me how much we can get these gains. In the last several years, we’re starting to see those gains from soybeans standpoint. We’re now cracking the envelope on concepts and insights to increase yields, but we’re steadily getting there. It seems like every time we put a crop into the environment, there are always stresses. From a producer’s standpoint, agronomist’s standpoint, our job is to minimize stresses. As we think about stresses, even when we were chatting leading into this, you referenced abiotic and biotic stresses. A lot of times, those get thrown around the industry. For our readers, could you describe both those types of stresses as it relates to a corn or soybean plant?
My background is a plant physiologist, that’s my formal training. We can start with biotic or biological types of strains or stresses to plants. Those are anything that has to do with things like pathogens, insects and nematodes. Those will all be biotic types of stresses. Abiotic stresses would be like your environment, moisture, drought and cold. These kinds of things that would be more environment. That often triggers biotic types of stresses. We know that warm, moist weather brings on disease more. We also know that hot temperatures and dry weather bring on insect pests. They interact, they’re not isolated. They work together. No two years are the same obviously.
Speaking with growers, even in the spring of the year, they’ll say, “What’s going to be our major disease or major pest this year?” It very dramatically goes back down to the abiotics trigger the biotics stresses. It might be something where we haven’t experienced this pest for 4 or 5 years. If you look at the environment, the environment will almost dictate not only the biotic stresses, but how we need to manage to them to still capture yield. In my mind, from a yield standpoint, a lot of times people say, “We’ve got to increase yield. By doing a certain task or certain treatments, we’re going to increase yield.” The moment when we start to realize that yield has already been established before the seed even goes in the ground, all we’re doing is implementing strategies that’s protecting yield that’s already been established.
Once we get our mindset around how yield is developed and when it’s gained and lost, that can help us understand how to develop our strategies against these. At the end of the day, we can have the best laid plan. We’ve got growers making plans for the rest of the season. We almost have to shoot from the hip based off planting dates, whether directly after planting or the first 28 days of a corn plant cycle. We almost have to be flexible and sometimes that can be challenging.
There’s no question about it. Fundamentally, the genetic package of any given seed is at its maximum before you put it in the plant or it starts meeting the soil. If we can think about, I like that perspective, that’s valuable for growers to think about it in that term. That soybean or that corn seed that they plant has been developed over many years across many environments. It was one of the leading elite lines against anything it was tested against or it would never have made it in the bag. For that reason, we have to think about getting everything else right, setting the right foundation, putting that seed and making sure that it’s protected. Trying to minimize those biotic and abiotic stresses as much as possible to maximize yield eventually.
I remember having a conversation with a gentleman and I said, “From a farmer standpoint, ag in whole, we put seeds into the ground. Whether it’s a corn seed being sorghum, whatever, we have it. We place that into soil. Mother Nature has this high desire to send a critter and attack it, and wants to eat it. Whether it be a pathogen, it’s an insect, whatever it is, Mother Nature wants to tear it down. Mother Nature doesn’t care about cash, rent or payments at the end of the year. All she wants to do is feed her critters. It’s up to us to offset that.
No question about it. Even a flock of geese that land on your field and it’s emerging, they’ll pull that up or maybe it’s blackbirds or maybe crows. There are any number of things. From that perspective, we could also look at ourselves as all biologists. We have to look at it as a biological system that interacts with the abiotic. We’re trying to protect and ensure as much of that genetic potential is delivered at the end of the season as possible.
Even you referenced all these other stresses that are pests, maybe I didn’t quite think about it. A lot of times, we don’t think of a bird or a goose as a pest, but it is. Anytime that we’re introducing a crop and we’re pushing the envelope, maybe it’s planting soybeans a little bit earlier, maybe it’s planting corn a little bit sooner than maybe should, based off conditions are right on 80% of the field. In some of those environments, we can have micro environments in the field that we have to almost sub-manage or know that we’re going to have a problem there.
There’s no doubt about that. Whether it’s a farm or a field, there are always those areas of that portion that are not going to be able to be managed as the majority. You referenced maybe 75% or 80% of the field is in very good tilt, that’s ready to be planted but there’s 20% that may be still problematic, and time dictates that you’ve got to do it. It’s never completely ideal. The same way on a farm, several fields within a farm, maybe they’re not all ready at the same time or they’re not all ideal, but because we have large acreages that we need to cover, we have to manage it in a broader way and a bit less site-specific possible.
Dale, as we think about pest, and very specifically the diseases that attack either a seed or a seedling, how does that process take place?
One thing to think about as much as we think about diseases and specifics, I’m in seed treatment development, so I think about individual pathogens and what this molecule will do against these groups of pathogens. There’s generally strengths and challenge areas for any single molecule. That’s why we use packages and molecules. When I look at that, what I have to always keep in mind is there’s a complex, a comprehensive group of pathogens that are going to be out there. Environment is going to trigger and promote which ones are going to be challenging at that moment or in the next few weeks as that seedling is developing.
For that reason, we have to think about they don’t occur isolated. Oftentimes, they’ll team up on one another. For instance, I’ve been doing a lot of work on a Pythium molecule we’ve been developing. I’m going after Pythium, but I also know that secondarily, Fusarium is going to be involved with that. Not so much Rhizoc generally, but oftentimes Pythium’s there. There will be some Fusarium that show up as we isolate these seedlings, and we’re looking at how these molecules are acting. It is a continual reinforcement that nothing happens in a silo and their systems of pathogens that we have to manage against.
You referenced three primary diseases here, Pythium, Rhizoctonia and Fusarium, specifically to corn. Are there any conditions that would favor one over the other?
There are thought of guidelines. Let’s start with Pythium, that’s the number one seedling corn disease. In fact, some people kid around that the top three seedling diseases for corn are Pythium, number two, Pythium and number three, Pythium. You’re right that Pythium, Fusarium and Rhizoc are the big issues. For Pythium, we need free water, meaning that the poor space in that soil has to be filled. It doesn’t have to be pooling on the top and be puddled, but you need free water for Pythium to germinate as well as to infest that seed or seedling that’s developing. There are Pythium species that are active anywhere from 45 to 47 degrees Fahrenheit, clear up through and past 70 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s not only cool, wet conditions, but you have to focus on wet. You’ve got to have plenty of free water for Pythium to be an issue. We don’t see a lot of Pythium problems on coarse textured soils as compared to some of the finer, higher clay content soils.
I’m glad that you brought up the free water piece because I can always remember grommets had taught me that anytime there’s excess moisture, there’s always the disease of the swimmers. They’re going to wake up and start swimming. It doesn’t necessarily have to be saturated or water that’s rolling off the field. Anytime we have poor spaces that are consumed by moisture, that’s anywhere these spores could germinate and move freely to go attack the plant.
These water molds need that free water. This is where other cultural practices are helpful. You want to make sure you’re careful and you reduce the amount of compaction you create in your fields because that only encourages ponding. You want to make sure that if your soil will respond to tiling, that you’ve titled it properly, with intervals across the field enough that it helps maintain a better water balance within that soil profile. These are all things that you think about. It’s a comprehensive complex system that we have to deal with and there are a lot of different areas.
We’ve covered Pythium, whereas Fusarium is a little less defined. We oftentimes think of Rhizoc as warmer and dryer, enjoying in that environment. Pythium seems like it ranges a little broader temperature range. It doesn’t need free water. It can infect and be problematic across a fairly broad temperature range as well as moisture conditions. For that reason, I think of Fusarium as the second most important on corn, but not that Rhizoc isn’t important. Certainly with Rhizoc protection, we see improved plant stands, health of plant stands and final yield. None of those should be minimized.
I can remember over the years scouting fields. Once the plant gets established a little bit, you can almost visually pop them out, what I’ll call the runts. You dig them up, you can tell there’s been an infection there. Sometimes I can find that if the plant was strong before an infection took place and maybe conditions improved, it could survive and come out of it. When we go back to say, “Yield is already established. To think that plant could still have optimum yield is a far stretch. To me, these pathogens and diseases are directly going to take down stands, which in turn take down marketable ears. That’s the single variable that we had the most control over is viable plants that lead to viable ears. From a yield standpoint, to me, this is an arena that needs to be explored and make sure that we’re protecting ourselves.
As a plant physiologist in our study and the study of many other plant physiologists, we know with some of the very highest yields, we have to maximize plant numbers. We have to maximize light interception. Equally as important is that uniform grow off of each plant. When you think of each neighboring plant, mirror images of one another, and that is important. I’ll touch back to something you were talking about runt plants or stunted plant. That can be either above or below the soil surface, but we see what’s above the soil surface.
Diseases like Pythium can affect you two major ways. You can reduce plant stand with pre or post emergent stamping off where you lose that plant. There’s another way, as you mentioned, stunting. That’s a reduced thriftiness of early growth. It may be a half a growth stage or half a leaf behind. It may be less leaf area. The neighboring plants are larger. It could be as much as 2 or 3 leaf stages behind. What those end up being is weeds in the row. They’re taking all the moisture and nutrients, but they’re not delivering like they could. Early on, the number of kernels set around that ear, the length of ear is set a bit later, but certainly all those yield parameters are determined fairly early. To the degree you can, you want to ensure everything is growing off. I call it happy corn or happy beans. Everybody’s happy, they’re grown off very uniformly. Nobody’s looking back.
We sit back and talk about needing to plant corn early for numerous reasons. It has a long opportunistic season to build everything. At the same time, we’ve got to watch when we do plant corn. We don’t want to push it too hard where we have all this free water sitting around or too early where maybe the plant’s not going to take off aggressively. There’s not enough heat to spark it and to grow past it. Build a node of roots and have a whole system where it can overcome it. Thinking about planting early, we’ve got to decide what’s the risk associated to it.
What we’ve seen last couple of years where a lot of folks were planting soybeans sooner than corn, allowing corn a little bit more time going into warmer trends for all the obvious reasons there, but maybe there are opportunities instead of planting corn into more challenging conditions. Let’s focus on beans in some situations because we know it can handle maybe the earlier cool standpoint, not necessarily that it can handle diseases any better. From a corn standpoint, it’s aggressively important to make sure that whole system, not only the root system, but the number of plants out there is maximized to get yield. Over time, we’ve learned how to manage that to a higher degree.
It’s important. Corn responds more directly with two plant populations in soybeans. Soybeans are a bit more forgiving when you lose a bit of population. They have more fruiting positions, more flowering positions, more adaptability, as far as pods and bean numbers within pods and things like this. We all know that soybeans bore a lot of flowers out there, so there are a lot of fruiting positions that typically are never recognized. Whereas corn, you lose a plant and that’s pretty directly proportional. Most of our elite corn products are single eared. We want as many of those ears out there as possible. They’re more fixed now than they were many years ago, where they were much more of a flex ear. Almost across environments and across populations, you could get a similar-sized ear. We want to make sure that we get that ideal population for that yield level of that acre that you’re planting. That’s important.
As we start thinking about rotations, are any of these seedling diseases more enhanced or profound by going heavier corn on corn or having more residue, or even simply moving tillage tools from our field that we know we have pressure and taking that tillage tool that still has soil and the shanks to another field? Are there things that we can manage through there?
The crop residue that we want to keep on the soil surface, whether it’s corn or soy or both that residue is to protect a very precious resource, and that’s our soil. Whether you’re no till or less till, it’s generally less tillage than we did a few decades ago. Most people have agreed that’s important to ensure that we maintain as much of that soil health and integrity of our soil, and we have less erosion. That’s good for everybody and the value of the land for that matter. With that, anytime you’re carrying over trash from the previous crop, you’re going to harbor pathogens that were in that previous crop. Keeping that previous crop as healthy as possible is important, and using seed treatments for early seasons seed and seedling attacking diseases, as well as a good crop rotation. A lot of people can’t get too far away from corn and beans, but using a crop rotation helps that. Corn after corn or soybean after soybeans encourage greater challenges in some cases, depending on the environments that are present. It requires more management.
In 2020, I can remember going on a service call where a particular hybrid had sensitivity to a Southern rust, came in very late, was not treated and the field laid wet. There’s one stress that hit the plant, which was the Southern rust, which then caused crown root rot and some other problems down below. Here you have two issues in the plant. They’re so far away from each other, not touching, but yet stress-on-stress can cause almost three times fold issue for the crop.
There are a number of different examples of that kind of thing. One thing that’s oftentimes in common though is that for stalk rots, generally to be an issue, oftentimes you have high yield potential early set, and then you have a stress. In this case that you’re describing, Todd, it sounds like that stress was Southern rust. We know that Southern rust rapidly destroys leaf area. When you destroy leaf area rapidly, that shocks and stresses that plant, which then causes the potential or the weakness of that stalk rot that was likely set earlier. We had a lot of yield that plant started pulling reserves out of the stalk to try to start filling that ear, I’m guessing. I’m thinking about that as a physiologist and as a pathologist. From that perspective, it’s not unusual to hear that. When you remove the amount of leaf area that Southern rust can do rather rapidly as you well know, that could trigger stalk quality issues later too through stalk cannibalization to fill those seeds that are wanting to be filled.
We spent the better part of this conversation talking about the different types of stresses that we typically associate to attacking a plant, but one stress we don’t ever talk about and it’s a big one is yield. If we think about a corn plant, we’ve got a big old ear out there, that is a lot of weight. If the plant itself, the factory, if it’s running short on nutrients or not enough energy to keep it going or a disease attacking it. That stress to keep all those kernels there, a lot of weight on the stalk, and then you can have these compounding stresses. A lot of times we don’t think yield is a stress, but it can be.
It’s fairly predictable when some of those disease stresses can occur that begin to affect that ear. It’s a well-known understanding that once the reproduction growth stage is complete, the foliar disease defenses are reduced simply because the systems that have been keeping that plant healthy and evolutionarily getting the plant to a point where it will set some seed. It’s been selected to produce seed and it tries to produce seed overall. That’s economically the reason that we’re growing it.
For that reason, once that has achieved and pollination is done, let’s use corn as an example because it’s so prone to lodging and stock issues if there are stresses later. You’ve got all these kernels set, you’ve got a great yield potential. For instance, whether it’s gray leaf spot or Southern leaf blight or Northern corn leaf blight or Southern rust or even common rust, depending on what that plant is susceptible to, you can start removing leaf area. After pollination is done, 1 or 2 leaves maybe below the ear and then up above are your photosynthetically most active areas. We think of the ear leaf all in all, and you’re trying to protect those and keep those healthy so that you can make sure that you fill as many of those kernels as fully as possible.
As you are not able to do that and those leaves are lost, that plant is going to continue to try to fill those kernels. It will start to cannibalize that stalk if it can’t through the photosynthetic system pull in more sugars to fill those kernels. For that, it’s fairly predictable that you set a great yield potential, you put that plant under stress. It can’t fill all those kernels. It will start re-mobilizing things out of the stalk and crown, and then that leads to some prone corn.
I’ve been on several service calls over my years on that very example you described right there. A lot of times, we had the yield that’s established. We’ve seen this in the last couple of years where you get to say three quarters milk line, and there’s still 25% yield left in there. Sometimes maybe we give up on the crop once it hits R2, R3. We think that can carry itself out. If there’s a moisture stress or disease stress that comes in, there are still a lot left of yield that we need to protect it. I have these conversations to even folks that run irrigation pivots. They always ask, “When can I shut it off?” I’m like, “Run it all the way to black layer. We’ve got to keep this plant alive.” It’s a different mindset of how you think about how the biology of the plant is working to maximize all the yield we can.
I was a crop consultant out in Southwest Kansas or in the Garden City. Those are fully irrigated corn yields out there. Without it, you’ve got a third of the yield that they could. As the water has dropped off, irrigation scheduling is critical. I know that even in the Midwest and some of the coarser textured soils, or maybe some of the more drought prone soils that do have water available, you have to make sure you’ve got a good soil profile of moisture through black layer. I completely agree, otherwise, you’ve got all your investments made. You’ve got your seed. You’ve got your land. You’ve got all your fertility there. You’ve got all your weed control. That can be some of the most expensive decisions at the end of the season to not make sure that plant has enough moisture. Dry land is a little different story, but being aware of it and knowing the potential is still very important to keep that plant as healthy as possible, as long as possible.
Up to this point, we’ve spent a lot of time chatting on some of the stresses that can attack a corn plant and soybean plant early, how establishing that plant early can help improve its ability to grow later in the season, which the plant health is a seasonal long practice. We know we know what the problems are. A lot of these are contributed to planting in less than ideal conditions or planting soybeans early. What’s a way that we can protect a seed, corn, soybeans, to help minimize as much as these problems from a disease and an insect standpoint?
Seed treatments are a tool that can be used. To step back with what you were saying, I want to encourage anyone who’s reading this, over the last few decades, the recognition that all university extension personnel seemed to be promoting is maximizing that growing season. We can’t maximize that pass like a frost period. The idea is to grow the proper maturity at the proper North to South position within the US growing area. To plant early enough to maximize that entire growing season, uses much of those heat units and light energy as possible. The earlier you plant, the more likely you are to run into those cool cold soils. You have slower emergence that allows more of these pests to try to catch up and overtake these seeds and having a good, comprehensive seed treatment package to minimize the infection.
For instance, Pythium in corn or a sudden death syndrome in soybean. Those are two areas that cool, wet conditions encourage problems. Almost any pathogen early, whether it would be soil borne, but typically it wouldn’t be soil borne pathogens. If you can get the corn or the soybean plant up and growing rapidly enough, it can reach the size where it can outgrow some of these problems. Many of these others are more sibling types of diseases that once the corn gets beyond like V3 to V4, it can largely outgrow many of these pathogens that trouble corn. Soy is a little different in that way. If you use a good comprehensive seed treatment package, it’s going to help establish that plant long enough so that it can get up and out of the ground and large enough to defend itself against these feed or seedling pathogen.
I’m glad you took us down this path to seed treatments because I have some follow-up questions for you on it. As you sit back and think about what makes up a good seed treatment package, I’m sure not every seed treatment on the industry is created equal, and maybe not all seed treatments are created equal. In your mind, what would make a good seed treatment package for corn, soybeans?
Most people are using in corn and soy, a group of fungicides and one insecticide. Some people are only using fungicides, but in general, especially with corn, it would be a number of fungicides along with at least one insecticide. That simply is going to ensure that early on, you are protecting against the key diseases. In corn, as you mentioned, Pythium, Fusarium and Rhizoctonia, those are the big ones for corn. You’re going to have soil insects as well as above ground insects for corn. The AI is a bit less important here. You’ve got like the 250 or the 500 rates, and that’s depending on, are you no-till? Are you North to South? The further South, you have a broader insect pest spectrum as well as heavier of any one of those insects as possible. Those are the kinds of things that people have decision points on.
On soy, you’re going to also have multiple fungicides and an insecticide, and you would decide whether you wanted an insecticide or not, but many people use multiple fungicides and an insecticide. If I could circle back quickly, something to consider is not all fungicides are created equal. While we’re not going to spend a lot of time on specific molecules and what they specifically do, you want to look at modes of action. You want as many modes of action that have activity. Maybe you’ve got overlapping modes of activity. You’ve got two different molecules that protect against Pythium or two different molecules that protect against Fusarium. Specifically if there’s a real trouble fungus for you or something like a sudden death syndrome on soy, that might be Fusarium virguliforme fungus.
You want to make sure that you’re using things that are specifically designed for your problem areas. I would say that molecules are very different. What I constantly find as I talk with growers or seed companies is that everyone’s very familiar with herbicides, what herbicides are good with these weeds, “I’ve got this weed problem or that weed problem.” They know which herbicides to use or someone does, and they’re even at the local retailer or the folks who are spraying. Where a seed treatment, it’s almost a decision, do you want seed treatment or not? They never go any further than that. It’s a color on the seed, and that’s a choice that growers make. Ninety-nine percent of corn is already treated with a fungicide insecticide. That’s a little less optional at the grower level, but on soy especially it’s not what’s on it. It’s do you want treatment or not? We can learn a lot more than where we now are on that.
I can remember coming out of college back in 2006. That’s when it started becoming popular for seed treatments in general, in my opinion, and a lot of downstream treating. It seemed like that started to take off. I could always keep track of customers who had treatment, the full package, versus none and they kept track of how much replant they had. We plan the math out that way. It would always show that the folks who used seed treatments did not have as much replant. It was because the ones that you see treatment wait until conditions were ideal or all these other factors. They’re all planted at the same time.
I could always find that less replant was always associated to having seed treatment. One thing that’s very important to know is that just because you use a seed treatment, it does not mean that you are 100% protected. In my mind, we use seed treatments, corn, soybeans, both, to minimize the impact. Just because we have treatment, it doesn’t mean we are 100% protected and controlled because that treatment is only going to help us for so long. I’m not saying that seed treatments are oversold by no means, but we’ve got to understand what they are and what the expectation is of it.
As much as I’ve spent time and my thought processes on seed treatments, nothing is 100%. In fact, I struggle when I hear the word control even used with seed treatments. I think about activity and I think about protection that these different molecules offer, combinations of molecules, but you’re not going to get a control-type of a situation. We’re basically trying to manage stress, both biotic and abiotic. To the degree that we can help minimize that and try to keep those plants as healthy, as long as possible, and allow them to get legs underneath them and get growing off. They’re a lot less delicate. They can use their plant genetics defenses to be out there. To the degree, we can encourage people to use multiple modes of action against the key pests that they’re very concerned about based on crop. They’re going to be more likely to enjoy that fuller genetic package that their varieties or hybrids are offering.
As I think about the fungicide piece of the seed treatment on corn or soybeans, whichever one we want, take me down the path of how that works. Does the active ingredient come into the rooting system, to the plant and move around depending on where that infection is going to attack? Is it something that grows around the outside and never gets into the plant, it’s just acting as a barrier?
It would depend on the molecule. There are molecules that are systemic and then there are molecules that are not systemic. They’re more what we would call contact or extremely locally systemic. That would mean that they don’t move about throughout the plant quite as much. These would be fairly predictable based on the class of chemistry they are. Let’s take it to an area that more people would be more familiar with, and that would be foliar fungicides. You’ve got your contact fungicides and you’ve got your systemic fungicides. Those that are more curative, those that are more protectant. When you think about those AIs, many times, those AIs are used as seed treatments too. They may be branded differently, but the molecule is the same potentially.
That brings us to another aspect of seed treatments that we haven’t talked about, Todd, and that is for a seed treatment to work, it’s got to be effective as a fungicide. It’s got to protect against a particular target or insecticide, same way, or a nematicide that has to protect, but it also has to be safe on a germinating seed. Especially in the terms of corn, if it sits on corn, if it’s been treated and it sits on seed corn, it could sit there for 2 or 3 years in a bag, in very good conditions, in cold storage, and now it’s going to be sold. It has to be safe on that seed. It can’t deteriorate the germination.
A lot of people don’t think about this thing, but I could bring out the greatest fungicide package for corn. If it will not be safe on corn seed for a long period of time, it could be harvested in October, November of 2019. It could be treated and expected to be sold in ‘20 for instance and it wasn’t. Maybe it never even left the warehouse. It may sit there for another 8 to 10 months, then be sold and move out to the field. That particular package has been on that seed for a lot longer than from the fall of one year through the spring of the next year. For corn, that’s important. Soil, a little less important because we don’t carry over seed from year-to-year potentially. As long as you’ve got a good seed fungicide, insecticide package, carrying it over an extra year doesn’t impact the genetic potential at all, as long as it’s stored properly.
Some of that drives the adoption of seed treatments. Corn was very fast it seems like. We don’t even talk about not treating corn anymore, but soybeans, it seems like there’s been that slow evolution of more and more being treated. It’s from the scarcity of having that inventory leftover at the end of the year, whether it be from the grower or the seed company standpoint. Maybe there’s a little bit of cautionary to that standpoint, but it’s very important to call out. All these active ingredients do have to be tested in multiple layers, but then also be tested on the seed. What we don’t want to happen is have a very good active ingredient, but yet it causes germination issues. It puts a grower in that plant at risk. That’s something where it’s very validating to do the test, do R&D work to make sure these products are safe.
It’s certainly not just field biology, it has to be safe on the seed. The rate has to be right. Even if there’s a little wobble in that rate, you need to make sure that doesn’t also impact seed quality or germination rate, or even grow off in the seedling, so that’s important. One thing to historically consider, when I first entered the corn business, all that was on corn seed was Captan. That was the most common single ingredient, there weren’t multiple different fungicides on it. It might’ve had a little bit of insecticide to keep any storage insect from bothering it in a bulk seed bin at a seed company. The trans genes changed all of that. The value of the seed increased geometrically very rapidly. We continue to as we continue to put different traits, both insect as well as herbicide traits in these seeds, they become more expensive. Each seed counts so much more. We’re not planting 250,000 seeds per acre, 225,000 seeds per acre in soybeans anymore. We’re down in that 140,000 to 160,000 range now. I know of some people that are certainly pushing that down even further, depending on a comprehensive seed treatment package, to make sure that every single seed possible can germinate, and they’re coming up with very good plant stands and higher yields.
It’s an area that’s caught a lot of attention. A lot of the higher yielding growers that we work with have explored that planting early into some of these challenging conditions, there is risk, but the reward of treating, that reward be able to treat and be able to plant early offsets the risk 9 times out of 10. There is no control. It suppresses the problem or it offsets a problem. I want to take a sound path from treating a physical soybean. A lot of times, we open a bag or see a box where a bean has complete coverage over it. You can’t see the bean color itself. You might see some beans that maybe half of it is treated. From a grower standpoint, they see one that’s fully treated. In their mind, “It’s got 100% of the active ingredient on it.” Where if you see one that has partial color, maybe it has half the active ingredient on it. How should someone evaluate that?
That’s a tricky proposition. In the last few years, the appearance package especially on soybeans has become very much more important than it once was. Our local, state and federal seed laws, whenever we’re treating seed with fungicide, insecticide, nematicide, we’re required to put a pigment. Everyone is required to put a pigment on it, just so potentially we don’t accidentally feed it into some livestock or use it in some a human consumption situation. It is instrumental to think about though that for demo purposes and talking points, sometimes we’ll take a Petri dish of seed, sealed with some wax tape right around it. It’s a nice little unit that you can hand around in a crowd or something. These are very beautiful beans. Pick your favorite color, your favorite sports team color, whatever. You treat that seed with that color. It’s got a nice appearance polymer on. It’s nice, shiny and uniform. It has no AI in it at all. We’re using it for demonstration purposes. You can treat seed with a full, comprehensive seed treatment package, no dye in it whatsoever, no pigment. It looks like maybe a fairly faded seed, but it’s packaged similarly like in a little Petri dish for looking at. It has all the AIs on it properly loaded.
Using that as a teaching device, that appearances don’t tell a full picture. I would agree with you if it’s splotchy, if it’s half treated, if it’s speckled, you do start questioning, “Did I get a full load of the AIs on here? What can I expect?” Because we’ve rapidly improved the appearance of beans in the last few years, if they don’t look nice, shiny and uniform, people do question that. To me, it’s not whether it’s colored or not. It’s that are the right AIs on it in the right rates? A lot of people assume that if it looks good, that is the case. It’s something to think about.
Perception is reality. We’ve got to watch to make sure what is out there is working. I can remember situations where it depends what treatment or whatnot. Maybe if you did get too much on it, it would cause issues in the tank, where maybe the beans would stick too much, or maybe there’s flowability issues. From a treatment standpoint, what’s your thoughts on why do some treatments cause a flowability problem, or sometimes the tensions there, maybe they don’t come out of the box as good. Does any of that have to do with the time of year and the environmental conditions that were being treated, humanity, temperature, all those other factors?
There are many different variables. We’ve talked more in the area that I hang out in and that’s on the biological side, Field Biology, this kind of thing, these different AIs and where I spend time. There’s a whole other area of seed treatment application, seed conditioning. These are also critical. You can have very cold seed coming out of the seed bin into a warm treating area, or maybe even the slurry is a different temperature than that seed coming in. The seed is entering a warmer area. You’ve got microscopic amounts of condensation on all the seeds as it starting to flow into the treater. You can get all kinds of different environments that are not conducive to ideal seed treatment.
For that reason, we have seed treatment experts at our Seed Care Institute that try to help manage these kinds of different environmental factors as you’re treating slurry volumes. There are many different inoculants and biologicals that people love to put on soybeans downstream. There are different AIs and different culminations AIs in the slurry volumes that are required. If you don’t have dry seed before it goes into whatever container you’re putting it into, you can end up with these big concrete blocks in your bag or in your bolt containers that are difficult. It can be detrimental to the performance of these high-speed planters that we have now.
You referenced it, high-speed planners. It seems like we are working with maybe fewer but bigger planters than we used to. In a lot of cases, these big planters are rolling 24/7. This seems like the whole logistic equation of soybeans and treatment. It adds complexity. From my standpoint, maybe even growers say, salesmen has asked me more questions earlier about treatment. To me, there’s such a long logistical chain to make all that happen. It’s not like the corn that’s sitting at the shed is already treated and ready to go. Soybeans, because we can’t dump or carry over treated beans, from an inventory standpoint, there are lot more cautionary pieces that we don’t want to treat a lot extra. As these planters cover more acres faster, think about a unit of beans, that’s roughly one acre or less. Corn, one unit is going to be 2.3, 2.5 acres. That inventory alone of soy beans is going to run through that planter so much faster, but yet that whole supply chain has to be well-organized to make it all flow so nobody is ever waiting.
Something that also plays into this is simply the fungicide or insecticide pre-mixes that are available. They’re not all created equal either. Some of them have wet flow characteristics that are much more conducive to fast throughput treating systems so that you can treat seed more quickly. You can clean up more quickly. You can handle it more quickly after seed treatment. These are all critical. It’s a bad day when growers have to call their seed treatment purveyor, and their large single or double high-speed planters have had buildup on monitors in the row, or potentially due to dust off or to rub off. These are things that make a bad day for everybody. It’s important that these seeds are coming out and they’re ready to go. We’re taking the time to make sure they’re in the right condition to put into those bulk containers, the large trucks that are bringing seed out to these fields and these large high-speed planters.
It’s almost a season-long management process to get the high-quality genetics that a grower wants, protecting it early, trying to make it to manage season-long and got to manage around all these pieces. It’s not as easy maybe as it once was to go to the shed and grab what we need for a multitude of reasons. That’s why it’s very important to be proactive in all these conversations. Don’t wait until the last minute and try and decide, “Do I go with Option 1 or 2?” Spend as much time as you can researching, talking to agronomists, talking to product folks like yourself, because there are a lot of great insights out there if we’re willing to ask the right questions and understand why we’re doing something. To me, it’s seeing a seed treatment as an investment, not a cost.
One analogy that I love to use. There are a few different ones that I use in different spots. I’ve yet to meet a grower that walks into one of these large multi-brand truck dealers and say, “I want a pickup truck. Send me a pickup truck.” They know what brand they want. They know if they want a gasoline or a diesel engine. They even know what size they want, what size bed they want. They do a great deal of research and they understand that. When it comes to seed treatments or even herbicides, it’s not like, “I’ve got a weed in my field that’s very prevalent, I need a herbicide.” They know what they want. They know what they need, or at least they’ve got an expert that tells them what they need specifically.
For some reason, when it comes to seed treatments it’s, “Do you want treated or untreated?” Not, “What are your problems? What diseases do you have? What typical, early symptomology do you have?” Unpacking it a little bit more and understanding that there are differences among seed treatment. It’s like anything else, it’s not getting simpler. It’s getting more complex. Some of it is because we’re learning more about it and we’re having a lot of innovation in AIs too. That’s fortunate.
We’re sitting in a good position where we are in production agriculture because there are many options out here to protect us. I can remember sitting in some meetings, straight out of college, when soybean seed treatments were starting to come on the market. This agronomist staff there, I got huge respect for him. It was funny, he’s like, “I’m going to ask you a series of questions and if you can answer yes to any of them, then you probably need soybean treatments.” It was, “Are you planting in challenging conditions, yes or no? Are you planting soybeans early? Are you striving for high yields, whether that’s 60, 80, 120-bushel beans? Is there a risk to bean leaf beetles? Are you planting in situations that had manure?” The final question is, “Are you planting soybeans?”
If you can answer yes to any of those, 9 times out of 10, you need to be experiencing seed treatments. If you haven’t, discover out how they can help you. If you haven’t had success with it, start diving into to why you weren’t successful with it. Maybe it was a factor of the AI they were using wasn’t going after the disease pests you were having problems with. It goes back to what you’re saying earlier. There are 3 or 4 primary pests on both corn and soybeans. It’s wise to use multiple ingredients in there to go after which one, because we don’t know which one’s going to be.
We might think, “Yes, I need treatment. No, I don’t,” but dive into the biology and understand the agronomics to it. I’ve never sold seed treatments as, “It’s going to make you more money.” My mind has always been, “It’s going to allow us to plant corn and beans into verbal conditions that will allow us to get the crop planted, get the crop going and establish and growing, and make us more bushels.” That is a very good way of thinking how seed treatments work, just have it on there. Maybe in some situations, we don’t think about putting a residual out on our bean fields. We know water is going to come. Proactively, go put it out there. As we start striving for higher yields in soybeans very specifically as we start planting earlier, we’re opening ourselves up to this whole host of potential problems. Let’s know these problems exist. Let’s not stick our head in the sand and assume that these problems aren’t out there. Let’s be proactive. We know these problems exist and there’s a solution for it.
As you opened up our conversation, Todd, you mentioned that it’s not necessarily the exact same environment in 100% of that field. There are trouble areas. Some fields always have the same trouble areas. Depending on that environment, any field is going to have more challenging environments in micro areas of that field. What a seed treatment does, whether it’s corn or soy or alfalfa, wheat or whatever you’re seeding, it’s going to help make a more uniform grow off across those environments.
After all, more and more, our growers are going to have 1, 2, 3, 4 different planters go in at once. They’ve got to have a couple of different crops they’re putting in. They may not get back to a field for 1, 2, 3 weeks to even check it. The idea that you’re going to come back, and then you’re going to have plenty of time because you didn’t use a seed treatment or you didn’t use the best seed treatment to go ahead and replant it then, you want to come back and see a nice uniform carpet of seedlings there. You need to see that. It was hard to find time to get it all planted. Do you have time to replant? That’s a difficult use of time during a very difficult part of the season when you’re needing to be managing weeds, you need to be managing other things.
You brought up, do we want to redo it again from a replant situation? There are situations that environments happen and we can’t control that. Replant is going to happen. Even if you have free replant, those dollars come off, your time is still worth something. Whether it’s you at the tractor seat, it’s you who go and find more seed. If it’s corn, trying to eliminate the mild stand that’s there, or if you’ve got to hire somebody to be in that seat, there is actual true cost of that. When you sit down and put your budget together, all those other factors need to come into it. Your time is worth something. You need to be worried about your herbicide applications. You need to be worried about grain markets and all these other pieces. Why not take that piece off the table and have it proactively managed?
You also have to have field conditions that allow a timely replant because you’ve already lost heat units. You’ve already lost light for the period of time between when you originally planted and when you might have to replant if you didn’t use a seed treatment. You also have to wait to make sure you get back in the field when you can. That might be another 1 or 2 weeks. You never know you can’t plant any time you’ve got time. These are all things that factor into it. They’re things that we think about after the fact so often when we can proactively think about them now, and maybe make a decision that will save us time and money in the long run, and be a very good investment.
Do you have any closing thoughts or closing comments?
I would challenge people to look under the hood a little bit, understand a little bit more what AIs are on that seed. I’m not saying old AIs. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s not good. Think about the innovations that we’ve had. Does anybody want to go back to the cellphone they used a few years ago, much less 20 or 30 years old? That’s what some of these molecules are that are still being sold on in some seed treatments. Have innovations been made? Are they faster? You think about electronics, are they faster? Do they have better memory? Do they do things that the other older models that we used to use, whether it was a truck or an old pair of boots? Everybody likes newer things. Not that new is always best, but innovations do occur for a reason and people do research, that’s what I do. We cannot release a molecule unless we can prove that it is better when we’re more labeling it with the regulatory authorities, when we’re bringing it out to new customers. These new molecules oftentimes are taking protection to the next possible level, for instance, and this is important to stay abreast of those types of innovations and developments too.
I appreciate your time. Some closing thoughts, you referenced to unlock the true genetic potential of our seed corn and soybeans, both. We’ve got to protect it on that front side and getting things established, and that seed treatments can help out. We can establish the good plant on the front side, but yet we’ve got have season-long management to protect this crop season-long. There are a lot of situations where we have to understand seasonal biotic and abiotic stress is clear through pollination grain fill, all the way to the end to maximize yield. Sometimes these stresses might not be things that we’re aware of. It could be yield. It could be our aviation friends coming in and eating out there, the deer. There are all these obvious things that we don’t always think about, but there are a lot of pests out there that are creating problems.
We do have very innovative solutions that can help offset the risk. We have this risk to offset it because we’re able to plant early with challenging conditions. We can still obtain high yields. At the end of the day, that’s the goal. How can we sustain our yields for what we got established, but also do it profitably? We can’t spend money on things that we don’t know it will work for us. We’ve got to validate why things work. Working with folks like yourself to understand which AIs work and how to make all these pieces work together at appropriate rates, that’s where growers are seeing that the huge value at the farm gate and hopefully reducing a lot of risks at the same time. With that, Dale, I do appreciate the conversation, your time, sharing your insight on this topic as our guest.
Todd, it’s been a pleasure. Folks having references and people who are able to advise, any single grower or a group of managers for an operation. There are many variables and many moving parts, having good, reliable, technical information. It’s hard to stay ahead of all of that. One thing is for sure, we’re all biologists at the end of the day. There are going to be changes happening all the time and trying to stay ahead of it. It’s important to rely on your trusted advisors and know that there’s always going to be change going on. I’ve enjoyed being here. I enjoyed spending some time with you, Todd and your readers.
Thanks, Dale. Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. I look forward to our future chats down the road. Thanks, everybody.
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