Robotic Bees, Synthetic Seed, Pelletized Seed Corn — No Longer a Pipedream
Pelletized seed corn always seemed a far-fetched idea. I first heard of the concept while participating in a presentation at the University of California, Davis. The topic came up in a group discussion, but you can expect that at Davis — this was a way more credentialed group than I usually run with.
Considering other high-flying topics included things like artificial pollinators (What like robotic bees? Yup.) and synthetic seed (Already doin’ it.), I passed it off as “not practically feasible.” It was just academic talk … that was until it came up as a topic at Iowa State University — smack dab in the Corn Belt. That got my attention.
Why and what would be the impact? From my standpoint, change doesn’t happen for the sake of change, except maybe in politics; it happens for economic reasons. Inevitably, the consumer drives change — it’s called demand. I will come back around to this, but first let’s look at it from the perspective of a seed producer.
Seed companies in North America go to great lengths to create four to six sizes of corn seed. Sizing is a fundamental process that’s a part of any corn seed facility and it takes up both vertical and horizontal space and requires multiple pieces of equipment. In South America, some facilities make 20-plus sizes of corn seed! That adds the complexity of length grading as well.
Once the seed is sized, re-blending would be crazy. This means additional storage is required to hold segregated sizes. Most facilities size seed prior to gravity separation, as gravity is proven to work better with sized particles. However, most facilities don’t have gravity separator capacity to continuously run four different size lots. This requires a lot of effort, space, time and money.
Although there are potential efficiencies to be gained by eliminating the sizing operation, it would introduce new costs to make it work well. How about new treating and drying equipment capable of handling pellets? There is equipment on the market that can handle capacities necessary for commodity crop runs. Many facilities are upgrading this part of their operation already because of increasing treatment rates. The additional inputs to handle pelletizing would be minimal.
It might also make sense to take some of the efficiencies gained and invest in new technologies such as advanced optical sorting for the seed kernel or optical sorting of the cob upstream at the husk/sort stage. Both increase final seed quality.
Now back to the consumer as the initial catalyst to change. Historically the sizing issue was driven by limitations of planting equipment. This is no longer the case. Planting equipment has evolved to be very flexible, allowing for precision but with tolerance for seed inconsistencies. Now sizing is driven by aesthetics and customer demand because the visual aspect of your seed equates to quality in the grower’s mind. So why not give them a beautiful pellet of their color choice? Inevitably, if it gives the customer a better product, won’t that create demand … and change?