Size Matters: Precision and Accuracy
Just as farmers look to deploy precision planting practices this spring, seed companies expect precision during the sorting and sizing process that happens post-harvest. Precision during the seed sizing process plays a vital role in agriculture, as research has shown that the germination rate is better for flat kernels compared to that of large and small kernels. Additionally, seed size impacts gravity separation and seed treatments.
For instance, large flat kernels require less air for fluidization compared to large round kernels, and during the seed treatment process, the application rate varies to properly cover flat seed versus round seed and its surface area.
Today, we mostly sort corn into five sizes (large round, medium round, small round, large flat and medium flat). Improvements toequipment and technological advancements allow for both precise and accurate grading — yes, there is a difference. “Accuracy” is how close the measurement conforms to the correct value, while “precision” is how much variation exists within a set of values. For example, if you have a set measurement for flat corn, the flat corn set is precisely sized if all the thickness measurements are close to each other (millimeters), while the flat corn set is accurately sized if the average of all the thickness measurements is close to the true value. It’s about precision and accuracy.
Most companies are able to precision size seed, but the average seed size is not accurate enough to hit the true value of seed thickness or width. For truly proper sizing, we need both accurate and precise grading cylinders, which grade seed thickness to the closest measurement of the true value.
Pictured here are two cylinders: Figure 1 and Figure 2 show how sizing flat corn changes depending upon the cylinder orifice accuracy. Each hole (orifice) has a specific tolerance for each cylinder size. For example, a 13/64 (0.2031) slotted conical cylinder has a tolerance of +0.001” and -0.0035”. Tolerance of each orifice in the cylinder plays a vital role to accurately size the seed.
At Oliver Manufacturing, we engineer the accuracy and precision of each sizing orifice and its corresponding kernel presentation. This starts with tooling that is designed and custom made based on our specifications for each unique sizing requirement. Every orifice is punched and formed independently to ensure repeatable quality for your application.
During each step of our Size Right cylinder manufacturing process, we measure and validate the cylinder’s orifices to meet a 95 percent confidence level — one of the tightest tolerances available in the market. Combine this with our statistically controlled processes to measure and validate the cylinder orifices and we provide the most precise and accurate sizing cylinder.
Precision and accuracy shouldn’t just be left to plant breeders and farmers; it should be evident throughout the value chain, including the seed sizing process.
Tomato Brown Rugose Fruit Virus (ToBRFV) Threatens the Tomato and Pepper Industry
ToBRFV, a Tobamo virus like TMV and ToMV, was discovered in 2014 in Israel and then in 2015 in Jordan. Since then, it has been found in Mexico, the United States (Southern California), Germany, Italy, Turkey, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia. Countries like Mexico, Japan, Turkey and Australia have begun to implement restrictions on tomato and pepper seed imports. This virus can overcome the known resistance genes in tomato varieties that have protected field and greenhouse productions from Tobamo viruses for many years. In peppers, the L gene that confers resistance to TMV and PMMoV seems to be holding up against ToBRFV. Varieties without the gene are highly susceptible. As t its name suggests, it causes yellow to brown colored wrinkled, necrotic spots on the fruit. Like the other Tobamo viruses, it is seed borne and can be readily spread from plant to plant mechanically in tomato/pepper productions, whether commercial productions or seed increases.
The Mexican government has instituted a regulatory seed testing program for tomato and pepper seed being imported into Mexico. There is concern in the seed industry that the testing method being used by SENASICA labs produces a high percentage of false positives. Research is underway in the United States to evaluate the Mexican protocol along with other publically available methods in an effort to harmonize a standard protocol that can be used across countries. This will help the tomato and pepper seed companies from being unduly punished or restricted based on inaccurate testing. Various sets of PCR primers have been developed and are in use to specifically detect this virus in seed and plant tissue. However, these primers have not been fully validated against a range of ToBRFV isolates. There are also commercial ELISA reagents available but they are not specific and will detect ToBRFV along with TMV and/or ToMV. Additional testing such as bioassay and sequencing is required to specifically determine which of the Tobamo viruses are present in samples that test positive by ELISA
It will take a concerted effort from the seed industry to slow the impact of this virus. This is why various companies (both seed companies and third-party testing labs like Eurofins BioDiagnostics) as well as universities are intently interested in solving this issue. Accurate and reliable seed testing is one of the main keys and is why Eurofins BioDiagnostics has actively participated in screening primer sets, tested ELISA reagents and duplicated the Mexican protocol.
* TMV – Tobacco Mosaic Virus, ToMV – Tomato Mosaic Virus, PMMoV – Pepper Mild Mottle Virus.
Building a Modern Food System
In the next five years, I’ll be shocked if we can’t increase farm profitability through greater crop and trait diversity.
We can and will accomplish this, but it’s going to take more than just large seed company innovation. We need the participation of innovators of every size and at every stage of the value chain.
At Benson Hill Biosystems, we are creating collaborations with partners to unlock nature’s potential in plants—empowering innovation across the value chain. Our crop design and development programs are focused on crop performance and sustainability, better health and nutrition profiles, and differentiated taste and texture characteristics.
Agriculture lacks investment zeal
Starting my career in venture investing, I analyzed companies across human health and life sciences. It was there I became fascinated with agriculture. I wondered why many of the biotech tools and applications were not receiving the same investment attention across more companies in agriculture.
That “white space” in ag innovation led to the founding of Benson Hill in 2012, realizing that we could combine machine and human intelligence to accelerate genomic advancement – in our own programs while at the same time empowering others to do so.
We assembled a powerful core tech platform, CropOS (Crop Operating System), with interdisciplinary teamwork of our data scientists, engineers, molecular biologists, physiologists and mathematicians. It’s this incredibly diverse group of people at Benson Hill that help partner companies differentiate their products in bold new ways.
One example of CropOS in action is our photosynthesis trait development pipeline, where we have partnered with Beck’s Hybrids to co-develop and commercialize a leading product candidate in corn. This partnership will ultimately deliver more grower profitability, and it’s a great example of true collaboration making us stronger than the sum of our parts—as it’s all about creating value and offering choice.
“CropOS also drives our Breed application, which leverages genomics-based machine learning to realize faster genetic gain in breeding cycles. Another more recently developed application is Edit, powered by CropOS. Edit can identify genetic targets within the natural variation of a species, enabling the utilization of our patented CRISPR nuclease portfolio for precise genome editing, and even more rapidly accelerating the breeding process.”
Engagement with our Breed application has grown tremendously in the past two years, with more than a dozen new organizations across as many crops now using the platform to accelerate their breeding programs. Putting the power of cloud computing and machine learning in the hands of breeders everywhere is a crucial step to furthering an industry that has been starving for innovation for too long.
Food and Ingredient Partners
While the seed industry is a likely place to focus a technology platform like CropOS, we also believe that the broader food production value chain is critical to maximize impact. Last year we took a deeper dive down the supply chain, working with companies like Mars in cacao and AB InBev in barley. These forward-thinking food companies are using Breed, powered by CropOS, to help build more sustainable crops that not only will be better adapted to changing climate, but will also have improved flavor and nutritional profiles.
What excites me most is building this community of innovation, by partnering with thoughtful researchers and companies looking to deliver products that benefit both farmers and consumers. It’s a food system mentality that didn’t exist 10 years ago, and innovative companies are changing the business model to deliver a tasteful experience directly to consumers that want it, creating new markets for growers and those serving them.
This all opens huge opportunity for growers and a supply chain that wants to engage. We’re building a community, come join us!
Basketball Is a Game of Inches; Seed Is a Game of Millimeters
Your favorite team is down by one and has the ball with the clock winding down. A shot goes up while the last seconds tick away. The ball hangs in the air, hits the rim and bounces up. Whether it goes in or not decides which team advances in the tournament. Victory or defeat is determined by the smallest of margins. Basketball is truly a game of inches.
In seed, the stakes are higher and margin for error is smaller. Research has shown that planting seed with uniform spacing has a high correlation to top yields. To achieve that, farmers have to have the right equipment, set the right way and operated in the proper manner. The farmer also needs seed that is exactly what the bag says it is, so the planter can be adjusted to the proper settings. The planting area isn’t maximized if spacing is too wide and plants will compete for limited resources if the spacing is too close. Both of these situations will reduce yield potential for a given field and a given crop.
New technology in yield monitors and singulation meters now allow farmers to better track and compare the planting precision of one seed brand to another. Seed truly is a game of millimeters.
The most important conditioning step for delivering accurate and precise seed sizes is grading/sizing. When making a grade size (say a 24/20 in corn) you need millimeter precision to make sure only 24/20 grade size corn is in the bag. To do this, cylinder sizing is preferred to flat sizing. Flat sizing systems are less expensive, but they don’t create the proper seed presentation to the screens to ensure accurate and precise grading. New precision sizing screens should feature technology designed to create the proper seed presentation in the cylinder and ensure every hole is punched to sub-millimeter accuracy. If the hole sizes aren’t uniform, the seed won’t be either. Also, make sure the grader screen hole sizes are measured every year as the holes can expand over time due to normal use. Finally, adding automatic screen roller-cleaners will ensure that each hole is unobstructed and available for sizing at all times.
By using the proper sizing equipment and screens you’ll give your company its best chance to meet farmers’ high expectations and win the game of millimeters!
Discovering Common Ground
One of the challenges of working in the global seed industry is the great distances we must travel to cover our vast territories—it’s an extensive marketplace involving most countries around the world. Add to that the differences in culture and core values between countries.
However, from my travels to North and South America, the Baltic countries, India and within Europe, I’ve realized there are more similarities among people and businesses than there are differences. The people I meet and the businesses they own and operate have much common ground, including an aim to provide high-quality products, pride in those products they produce, and prudent resource management.
We have a direct connection to the food industry, so we’re all very quality-minded and we aim for the highest standards in our work and our products. We are also mindful of providing cost-effective solutions for our customers and, ultimately, for the farmer, who is also running a business and must make a profit. Providing high-quality products in an economical manner is a challenge we all face.
Another reality for our industry—and a challenge for most stakeholders—is regulatory compliance. In Europe, products must meet European Union requirements to protect human and animal health, the environment and consumer rights. We must also provide detailed risk analyses for the products we produce.
However, as a European seed treatment equipment company, the regulations we must comply with also provide many business advantages. To sell equipment in Europe, you must be a Certified European manufacturer. The letters “CE” signify products sold in the European Economic Area have been assessed to meet high safety, health and environmental protection requirements.
What this means for our business is all processes, from delivery and installation to handling chemicals and operating equipment, as well as unit disposal, must meet EU regulations. Most importantly, by buying CE-approved equipment, operators know all risks have been considered and they won’t be exposed to chemicals or hurt in any way, no matter where they are in the world.
In fact, European seed companies must buy Certified European equipment in order to install it. However, given the opportunity, I believe the industry would continue to choose equipment made to meet these rigorous standards because businesses want machines to be safe, easy to clean, while operating at minimal risk to health, safety and the environment.
For example, in Europe, seed treatment equipment must operate within closed systems: from the barrel all the way to bagged seed, the operator does not come into contact with the seed treatment chemicals. One dosing system is connected to each slurry or chemical. Chemicals, or products, are mixed in the machine before application.
This also goes hand-in-hand with product quality because machines are easily cleaned and dosing rates are managed within the system, increasing application accuracy. Additionally, the equipment’s sophisticated and regulated system provides statistics on everything from dosing rates to cleaning records. It’s also easier to attract and retain equipment operators for closed systems.
The demand for seed treatments in North and South America, Africa, China and the Baltic countries, to name a few, is large and increasing. There is also an upward trend toward high-volume mobile trailers.
What I’ve discovered from traveling to the countries that make up our markets is the businesses in those countries are actively seeking out equipment that meets the high standards set by EU regulations—yet more common ground across diverse geographic and cultural backgrounds. I believe we will continue to see our industry striving in this way for the protection of human and animal safety and health and the environment.
Nematodes In Corn May Be More Prevalent than you Think
Nematodes are both natural soil residents that contribute to healthy, productive soils and parasitic, free-living organisms that feed on living material. About 25 to 30 species of nematodes that feed on corn have been identified in Midwestern fields. While nematodes are recognized as a major soybean pest, their effect on corn is less well known. A study by university agronomists found nematodes in 80% of the corn fields sampled in Illinois had plant-feeding nematodes. Similar results have been found in other corn growing states. In addition to sandy soils, continuous corn fields and no-till fields are the likeliest areas for nematode problems.
When scouting a field, look for damage in circular patches within a field. The most obvious sign of nematode damage is wilted leaves. Plants that are stunted by nematodes might appear to be suffering from a nutrient deficiency because the damaged roots can’t take up nutrients. When corn is in the rapid growth stage, damage can increase dramatically over a few days.Nematodes in field corn reduce feeder roots and produce root stunting. When looking for symptoms of root damage, the roots should not be pulled but rather should be carefully dug with a shovel. Pulling roots out of the soil will strip away the fine root hairs. The most common type of damage to corn is root rotting caused by fungi entering the root hairs through infection ports made by nematodes.Compare roots from a possible nematode hot spot to the roots of normal plants. Damaged roots may have a stopped-off or club-shaped appearance. The tips may turn brown and stop growing. There may also be a noticeable lack of root hairs.
Having soil in suspected areas analyzed for nematode counts will establish baseline levels that can help you decide whether a nematicide treatment will pay in the future. All the nematodes that damage corn also feed on weeds and other crops. The most appropriate control measure depends on which nematodes are causing damage. Maintaining good plant health helps plants resist nematodes. Rotating crops and controlling weeds may help reduce the population of some nematode species. Selecting hybrids with known genetic nematode resistance may be an effective investment and seed treatment nematicides should be considered as part of an integrated approach.
Industry Trends, Evolution and Trailblazing
There’s a lot of industry buzz about biostimulants and biopesticides, and seed companies are screening more biological products in their testing programs than ever before.
I started working in this industry in the late ’70s selling soybean and legume inoculants and there were many soil amendments in the adjuvant category, such as seaweed. Farmers experienced good results with some products and none with others.
I’ve watched the market evolve from those beginnings into what it is today. Now, a reputable biologicals company can describe in detail what a microbe is doing, how that microbe performs, and what plant systems the microbe affects — and that company can provide replicated trial data to back up the claims it’s making about biological performance.
Most farmers want to see two to three years of replicated trial data from seed companies. Then the farmer will try the product to see if the data is replicated on his farm ground. We encourage seed companies to put our products in their replicated trials so they’re able to provide proof of what we know our products can do. That is what increases the adoption of products in the marketplace and it starts to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Another trend I see taking place is a shift in thinking about the application and use of biologicals. For example, in the past, if Maxim or Apron was put on the seed it was thought nothing else was needed.
Or if you wanted to put SabrEx on Acceleron-treated corn, once again, the use of the biological in addition to the seed treatment was questioned. Now we consider them companion products. Many biological products, such as biostimulants, extend the benefits a seed treatment, like Acceleron, provides the seed.
If a biological is living on the root system, the plant is feeding it with sugars and starches given off through the photosynthetic process; thus, the benefits of the biological can last into the crop’s flowering stage.
In return, the biological is feeding the plant enzymes and metabolites. Additionally, the biological starts to trigger changes within the plant. The biological and the plant have formed a synergistic relationship.
Our products have already evolved so far since the establishment of ABM in 2000. Not only on the microbe side, but from the standpoint of production, formulation, delivery systems and longevity on the seed.
And there are a lot of new innovations coming: not only from ABM, but in the marketplace. We’ve made significant progress so far, but in so many ways we’re still trailblazing, which makes it such an exciting time to be part of this sector.
How Do I Get Started with Twitter?
We are all aware of the impact social media has on today’s world. It influences our personal lives, but also opens the door to business marketing. Social media is valuable because you get to connect with your customers, bring brand awareness, and increase sales. Twitter in particular delivers outstanding results; consistency is key when using this particular social media platform.
Here are some key benefits of Twitter:
- Brand awareness
- Boost engagement
- Drive website traffic
- Monitor your brand reputation
- Keep up with latest trends in your industry
- Get instant feedback from your customers
Here are some tips on how to get started:
Set up a photo and bio. Your bio should include who you are and what you tweet about. If you have SEO, name your profile photo. Don’t forget to include your website link in your profile.
Use #hashtags and @handles. Keep it simple, and don’t use more than one hashtag. As per Small Business Trends, companies that use more than one hashtag see a decline in engagement. Tag people in your posts to create additional exposure to your tweet.
Relevant content. Find people and companies who contribute good content. In turn, provide relevant content and contribute to the conversation. What do you know that others may benefit from? Target your audience and grow your followers.
Engage with your audience. If someone mentions @you, @your business, or @brand in a tweet – don’t forget to respond with a like, comment or retweet. Build relationships on positive experiences.
Social media is not something that should be solely utilized by one person within a company. Ideally, the entire organization is involved with some facet of social media. Create a set of basic guidelines and encourage participation from your team. It’s important to maintain a consistent voice and branding when it comes to Twitter. Businesses that use Twitter as a marketing platform can improve customer service, communicate better with customers, increase traffic to websites, and follow market trends closely.
On the Trail of a Monster
Waterhemp is both a monstrous and remarkable weed (Amaranthus tuberculatus (A. rudis is occasionally used to identify waterhemp plants that have developed herbicide resistance.)) that has been a part of the North American landscape for centuries. It is an edible plant that was important for Native Americans who collected its seeds for food. That might be the only good thing that canbe said about this plant, a close relative to redroot pigweed, Palmer amaranth and other common pigweeds. Waterhemp is widely adapted and can produce several hundred thousand seeds per plant. These plants have a profound propensity to develop herbicide resistance. One plant population found in Missouri was confirmed in late 2018 to have developed resistance to six herbicide modes of action.
It is impossible to make a definitive, visual identification of waterhemp seeds. Its seeds along with seeds of other Amaranthus species all have similar phenotypic shape and size. They all can vary in color from dark to light brown with varying amount of seed coat mottling. While one species may tend to be generally darker or lighter than another species, there is a significant amount of coloration overlap that makes it impossible to identify individual seeds. When waterhemp or other pigweed seeds are found in a seed sample, they will be listed as Amaranthus spp. on the seed analysis report. The best solution for handling waterhemp and related seeds, of course, is to keep them out of a seed lot in the first place.
When found in any seed lot but especially in grass or cover crops these seeds present an immediate problem. Like Palmer Amaranth, Waterhemp has been classified as a prohibited noxious weed in the state of Wisconsin, making proper identification of Amaranthus turberculatus imperative. If a seed control official pulls a sample that tests positive for Amaranthus spp. the lot could be subject to an immediate stop sale order. Eurofins BioDiagnostics has recently validated a PCR test that can be used to positively identify individual waterhemp seeds discovered within a physical seed purity examination.
Identifying weed seeds within any seed lot is always important, but when Amaranthus seeds are discovered. A PCR analysis is the only method except for completing a time-consuming growout to determine whether or not noxious weed seeds are present.
Enjoying the Fruits of Your Labor
In the previous columns, I’ve outlined three of the four stages—the conceptualization, design and engineering, and manufacturing phases—to updating or building a new seed site. The final phase includes the delivery, set-up and, most notably, the enjoyment of your site. Your satisfaction with your seed plant is a result of successfully completing the first three stages
Shortcuts taken during these stages will greatly affect whether the finished facility is enjoyable or a regret. Taking shortcuts may make it difficult for producers to do business with you because your ability to provide them with quality product in a timely manner will be affected.
For example, downtime or backlogs due to broken or inefficient equipment, ineffective flow within the seed plant or yard, and cracked or damaged seeds will cost you sales.
The proper planning, design, engineering and manufacturing will allow you to generate high-quality seed while providing an efficient, customer-friendly experience for producers. Flow is critical: customers must be able to move efficiently in and out of the yard and seed must move easily in the plant.
Profitability is also a reflection of the success of the first three stages. Profitability is achieved with throughput volume, operational efficiency and seed storage and handling integrity. If your site is planned and executed correctly, you can maximize the number of customers you put through your facility and your profits will be higher.
If you’re constantly fighting with the system you’ve put in, it’s going to make for very long, frustrating days. However, if you have the right design, the right equipment and the right site—if you make that investment at the start—it’s going to make your business much more profitable. Your investment reflects how you view your business.
In the end, customers want to do business with owners who invest wisely in their seed operations. If you’re able to move producers in and out of your facility in an efficient and timely manner, they can plant more acres in a day, which is better for their farm operations.
Seed is an important input for farmers. They want to know the seed they require is stored, handled and treated in the best manner possible. If you’ve spent the time necessary for working through the first three phases of building a new seed site the fourth stage will seem effortless, and you’ll meet or exceed all of your customers’ expectations.
What is the Real Limiting Factor in Plant Breeding?
One of the most important aspects of plant breeding is the genetic variation among plants in the population. Genetic variation, which refers to how much plants are genetically different (or similar) than each other in a given population, is the fuel behind any breeding program.
Narrow genetic variation has had a dramatic impact in our history. The great Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century, caused by the late blight disease, wiped out the Irish potato production over a period of 10 years and caused the death of over 1 million people due to starvation and related diseases.
After that disastrous event, plant breeders were able to identify resistance genes in wild potato germplasm and create resistant varieties.
Even today, too little genetic variation poses a major bottleneck in commercial breeding efforts. The rational is simple: if you cross two plants that are genetically too similar, you will get an offspring with similar characteristics, and thus you miss the target of improving the offspring over their parents.
As a result, the relative rate of gain in yield (and other important plants characteristics) in breeding decreases over time. Furthermore, there is evidence of yield plateaus or even abrupt decreases in rate of yield gain in the last years.
Access to genetic variants is preserved in genebanks (or seedbanks) which help to keep a large and diverse variety of plants, but the use of this genetic variation repositories in breeding is limited. To overcome this challenge, the G2P-SOL project has been formed.
G2P-SOL(www.g2p-sol.eu/)is a global research cooperation, formed under the European framework Horizon 2020 to bring together the major European and International genebanks of the four major Solanaceous food crops (potato, tomato, pepper and eggplant). The project duration is 5 years (2016 – 2021) Its budget is about 7M Euro.
G2P-SOL will use thousands of DNA markers to characterize the genetic basis of more than 50,000 accessions of these four crops stored in major European genebanks.. This genotyping information will allow breeders to evaluate the real genetic variation (rate of difference or similarity) among these thousands accessions. Based on this the project will create a “Core collection” in each crop which is a subset (few hundreds) of the accessions that maximize the genetic variation. These core collections will be planted and grown in multiple locations around Europe over two seasons. Plants will be characterized by various attributes, such as growth, yield and quality that are frequently used for breeding.
The seeds used in this project will be available for free. The data that is generated will be accessible to all through an open web system, the G2P-SOL gateway. The data will be published soon.
This project represents a major pre-breeding effort that can identify valuable traits from cultivated and wild germplasm currently stored in genebanks. Importantly, it will dramatically extend the level of available genetic variation. This will allow the translation of these traits into variety development. The G2P-SOL gateway has the potential to unlock today’s barriers in plant breeding of potato, tomato, pepper and eggplant.
Why All the Hype About Hemp?
Hang on to your hat, this could get interesting!
I live and work out of Colorado. Imagine the kind of ribbing I have taken about a crop like marijuana as I traveled for agribusiness over the past 6 or 8 years. “Hey Jon, what kind of seed are we really processing?” Even internationally, the recognition our home state developed with cannabis was the first topic of conversation…well OK, maybe not after the Presidential elections.
In the shadow of a controversial topic like legalization and production of marijuana, a bit more conservative cousin is taking root and gaining ground… nonrecreational hemp. Actually, as an industry we should refer to the crop as “Industrial Hemp,” i.e. cannabis with less than .3% THC (the chemical that produces marijuana’s high). I am certain that never did so many Coloradoans follow the legislative development of the 2018 Farm Bill as they did this last year. In January, a segment of the bill removed industrial hemp from the Schedule 1 list of federally controlled substances. This essentially moves regulatory authority for the crop from the DEA to the USDA and allows state ag departments to file plans with the feds for agricultural production.
But hold the phone, this doesn’t exactly make propagation of industrial hemp legal in all 50 states. There are still some issues to work through and just like differentiation between states on liquor laws, driving laws, etc. industrial hemp’s legality is determined at the state level. Colorado certainly has poised itself at the head of industrial hemp growing states but there is an unprecedented amount of development in all aspects of the industry that must happen. In your lifetime can you name a plant, crop or seed going from being federally illegal to being approved for open ground cultivation in just a few years? This isn’t like bringing chia or quinoa back into the market, this is unprecedented!
I’ve had opportunities to work with industrial hemp over the last 8 or so years, working on projects to clean seed (edible and plantable), process biomass (the product used to extract cannabidiol (CBD oil) and harvest product. The industry is developing at a feverish pace. It literally is the wild west. The opportunities are legitimate, but the risks of an undeveloped market are real as well. As we squeeze industrial hemp into the American agricultural model a host of items need to be considered: development of legitimacy in seed sources, consistency in production and processing models, development of markets for the entire plant aside from just CBD oil and streamlined legal and trade environments at the state level, just to name a few… Hold on, I think we are in for a wild ride!
A Smarter Way to Work
There’s a lot that goes into developing a biological product that performs in the field for the farmer and can be applied at the seed company level. First, you look at the efficacy of the biological, biostimulant or biopesticide.
We know how the microbes we use for biological products work: we know what they do to the plant, how they perform, and what changes they trigger within the plant, whether the crop is corn, soybean, wheat, cotton, rice, or other.
We take a crop-specific approach to developing our products. We use what we call the Smart Selection process for selecting characteristics we want and to determine the strain, or combination of strains, that works best on each crop.
During this process, we start by selecting characteristics in the Petri dish, and then, most importantly, we do this in the greenhouse. This process increases the likelihood the desired characteristics will translate to the field.
When we apply Smart Selection to our biologicals, we examine the microbial genome, its expression, and the plant’s performance once it is colonized by the microbe. We use the microbial genome to accelerate advanced strain selection. Only microbial strains with promising genetics are tested in the field and microbes are tested in many environments and over many seasons.
Once we establish how our biologicals perform on a crop, we examine the microbes’ disease and insect control capabilities. If the biologicals are efficacious on diseases or insects, we move them into the biopesticide realm. It’s an evolution from the root and soil inoculant to the biostimulant to the biopesticide.
It takes about four to five years to develop a commercial product. For example, we carry out two years of initial screening in-house. An independent, third-party research firm performs the field trials. We like to have field trial data for three years before we launch a product in the marketplace.
We also perform compatibility testing with the current fungicide and insecticide packages on the market. Therefore, when a customer buys our product, it will be compatible with other products on the seed, so the farmer receives the return on investment he makes in that product.
Biologicals are increasing farmers’ crop quality and yields, which creates repeat customers as farmers demand this high performance seed every year from their seed dealers. Typically, the largest ROI on a biological, biostimulant or biopesticide is back to the farmer at the end of the year, which is a good scenario because we need to keep farmers in business.
The Enemy Gets A Vote
I like looking at leadership from a slight military perspective, or better yet, from the viewpoint as the parent of a two-year old. The enemy gets a vote.
I actually had not heard this phrase until after I was out of the military, although I’m sure it’s been used for a long time. I was low on the totem pole and didn’t participate in high-level leadership meetings but once I heard it, it immediately made sense to me. Even your best laid plans are subject to outside forces.
As leaders in our organizations, we try our best to forecast the future, to strategize for the best possible outcome, and to make sure we have sound plans in place so we can execute the strategy. We even come up with contingency plans in case this or that happens, and we need to adjust.
But something always happens that seems to come out of nowhere. A tornado rips through your area and destroys crops or buildings. A key employee wins the lottery, moves to a secluded beach and throws their cell phone in the ocean. Maybe a supplier suddenly goes out of business or a competitor steals a big customer. Or you could be on your way out the door headed to work when you find your two-year old covered in hand soap. The enemy gets a vote.
Not all is lost though. Keeping this thought in the back of your mind forces you to think a little deeper and to plan a little better, which is a good thing. We now keep hand soap way out of reach and child locks on all of the important doors.
Daniel Kahneman, in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” talks about teams doing a premortem before a project gets underway. You think about all of the ways the project can go wrong, and then you work backwards to reduce as much risk as possible, limiting what the enemy can vote on.
It’s impossible to predict the future and cover every possible scenario, but if we want our organizations to survive long term, it’s a habit we need to instill. And whatever you do, don’t go more than five minutes without checking on the toddler.
Take Care! A Phrase that’s Given Me New Perspective to Balancing It All
You know that all-to-familiar goodbye, be it in email or in person: “Take care” or “take care of yourself.” Most of us don’t think twice about it and just consider it as a polite way to exit or leave a conversation. At the end of last year, I had a business friend close a conversation by telling me to “take care,” and I about flew off my chair. What does that mean anyway?
My list of goals both personally and professionally for the year ahead seemed so far away, and with my list of things that needed immediate attention, it felt like I’d never make headway toward reaching those. And that casual goodbye sent me into a tailspin.
Then, it made me sit back and put an actual plan together for what’s most important and how I’m going to tackle it. I know I’m not alone in having to-do lists for each area of my life and trying to figure out how to check off as many items as fast as possible. I’m coming to learn that my fantasy of gracefully “balancing it all” is unattainable and not practical.
I’m still disconnecting and finding those moments to seek clarity, but I also recognized that I needed to take a farm approach to my work … and start by killing the weeds. If you’re wondering what this means, I’m figuring it out. Essentially, it’s getting rid of tasks, distractions and as many things as possible that take energy away from my goals or where I find my peace.
Next, I need to prepare the land for the crop to be planted, nutrient application. For me, this means taking care of myself. That will look different for everyone, but I love spending time in the barn, reading and exercising. These things make me feel relaxed and in a better state of mind. They help me disconnect and better re-engage.
Finally, it’s time to plant the seeds, and this is making sure I have the right people around me either to help guide and contribute to the success of projects or just to be supportive and listen.
Putting a plan in place that does each of these three actions (kill weeds, applies nutrients and actually plants the seeds) for each of my key goals is helping me to find peace and progress on my journey … and for me, that’s taking care.
Today, I’m grateful for that casual “take care,” because it put me on a new path forward for tackling 2019.
Spring Wheat Is More Than Poverty Grass
It is in years like this with low commodity prices that some farmers give wheat the dubious title of “poverty grass” because it is the least expensive crop they can produce. This is the time for growers to remember that when prices are low, there is little margin for error. This may not be the best time to use all the highest priced, premium inputs but neither is it the time to neglect yield. Instead of being focused merely keeping costs to a minimum, redirect growers’ attention to applying the best management practices to produce a high-quality crop with cost-effective inputs.
Best Spring Cereals Management Practices
Begin with good quality seed and plant it early. Early planting with quality seed is one of the most economical steps a grower can take to protect yield potential. In some of the Northern US regions growers like to get their spring wheat planted while the ground is still cold which can slow germination and put the seedlings at greater risk for disease. This is when growers are well advised to use an economical seed treatment to protect their investment.
Most of the issues and concerns with seedling diseases are driven by the environment and growing conditions. Seed treatments are one of the best buffers against poor growing conditions – especially to control those problems that are seen early in the year. Seed treatments optimize the crop’s genetic potential. Smut is a disease that should be taken as a given. There are a variety of economical treatment products to control this disease. Under normal conditions, Pythium is another disease that can be controlled with an economical metalaxyl seed treatment and if other diseases such as fusarium or rhizoctonia are present, don’t be afraid to add another chemistry to protect that potential.
A basic fertilizer application is essential to get a cereal crop off to a healthy start and give plants their best hope of withstanding early season insect and disease pressures. When prices are low, cutting back on fertilizer rates to lower production costs puts the entire crop at risk by lowering potential for both yield and protein content. Increase application rates only as long as the added units provide a positive ROI. When commodity prices are low, the optimal rate will be less than when prices are higher. Plan ahead and remain flexible. There are few last-minute options if Plan A fails.
Bud Light’s Super Bowl Ads Weren’t a Mistake and That’s Why They Are so Scary
The Bud Light brand launched one of the most successful ad campaigns in recent history when “Dilly, Dilly” was revealed to the world in August 2017. The refrain “Dilly, Dilly” transcended the Bud Light brand and became commonplace in rural American lexicon.
Super Bowl after Super Bowl, Bud Light or Budweiser had delivered iconic advertising campaigns. The “Bud-Weis-Er” frogs, “Wassup” and Dilly, Dilly allowed the Bud brands to become part of popular culture in way almost no other brand had. And yet, sales have steadily declined. Consumer preference for unique, craft beer has slowly eroded Bud consumption.
Enter, Super Bowl LIII. New York City advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy (creators of the Dilly, Dilly campaign), along with AB InBev (Bud’s parent company) choose to focus solely on one ingredient that Bud Light doesn’t contain. The catch phrases were gone, the Clydesdales were left in the stable and the rural imagery that built a beer empire was shelved. In the Super Bowl ad, Bud Light doesn’t make any aspirational statements or tap any emotions. It simply said that Bud Light doesn’t use corn syrup which make it better than any beer that does.
The Corn Belt responded harshly. Social media erupted with #BoycottBudLight and farmers posted videos of dumping Bud Light down the drain. This wasn’t just one ad. For the duration of the Super Bowl, Bud Light ran more ads and posted on social media. They all contained the same anti-corn syrup messaging. This is the new campaign. The message is simply that corn syrup is bad, therefore Bud Light is good. This wasn’t a mistake by Budweiser. It’s the latest big bet to try and stay relevant with the future consumer and it spent millions of dollars to do it.
Agriculture is changing and consumers are driving it. For context, more people live in the New York City metro area than in ND, SD, NE, KS, MN and WI….combined! Farmers need to spread positive messages. Corn is more environmentally sustainable than sugar cane, sugar from any source is chemically identical, farmers care for their land and animals, GMOs are safe, cow farts aren’t destroying the climate, etc. At the same time, farmers need to look for ways to diversify their business and develop alternative revenue streams from alternative crops, value-added production and connect directly with consumers. The urgency should be high. Farmers and everyone in agriculture need to step up our efforts to communicate agriculture’s benefits while preparing for a new reality. Your voices are needed more now than ever before.
Good Things Do Come in Small Packages
The effectiveness of biologicals is simply amazing. For example, miniscule amounts of the legume inoculant rhizobia can influence nodulation, plant growth and development, nitrogen fixation, soil nitrate levels, and plant yield.
If we put rhizobia on a legume seed and plant the seed in the ground, the seed and the rhizobia begin surveilling their surroundings, including each other, ultimately developing the synergistic relationship resulting in all these benefits.
In theory, we could put one rhizobia cell on that seed as a starter inoculum. That cell will divide to create more cells. Bacteria and fungi both do this; in fact, some grow into the plant root and live with that plant all season long. Theoretically, one cell is all it takes; however, due to the harsh seed treatment conditions, environmental stresses, and sampling error, we need to target delivery of many more than that. This is definitely not an argument for second-guessing application rates.
To deliver the optimal number of cells, or microbes, to a seed, we must think about what those cells are experiencing during the seed treatment process: there will be loss on the way. We need to ensure there are enough cells making it through being mixed with other chemicals or salts, being atomized or forced through a spray nozzle, and being stored for a variable length of time.
Product formulations and CFU (colony forming unit) specs are designed to accommodate these factors and still get the number of cells on the seed by the time of planting that will ensure effective starter inoculum amplification, colonization, and performance.
In the end, there is plenty of science to support the efficacy of small amounts of cfus per seed as being effective, owing to the fact that living biologicals reproduce themselves. That said, living biologicals react differently to conventional ag input handling processes than chemistries and inerts do, being much more susceptible to these harsh conditions.
Thus, successful products have been adapted through innovative formulations and delivering far higher CFUs than are actually necessary in order to ensure grower success in the field.
How Not to Get Caught in the Whirlwind of Change
You know that old cliché saying “the only thing that is constant is change”? It seems more and more appropriate. We live in a world where we are connected to news, information, ideas … and work almost 24/7.
On the world stage, we are seeing major political shifts from Brexit in Europe to Saudi Arabia’s regulatory reforms in the Middle East and a seemingly growing political divide here in the United States. In the life sciences sector, we continue to see ever-increasing technological advancements and the struggle around ethical boundaries to how science should be applied. In our industry, we are nearing the end of the merger and acquisition phase for the Big 6, now the Big 3 (Bayer, Corteva Agriscience and Syngenta), and companies are fighting for everything they have, from genetics to market share.
It’s abundantly clear that change is constant, from the world around us to our own business, and we’ve got to work daily to be forward thinking and stay ahead of the curve.
As such, we’ve made changes to our business, including our approach to sales, the value we place on engineering and our service model.
For starters, we don’t just sell equipment anymore. We sell services and software, and we’ve had to change our approach when talking with customers. We are still selling value, but what we sell isn’t strictly tangible; we must be able to articulate the intangible services and benefits.
Another change that we have made is our approach to new products and how we design and develop new solutions. If it takes us too long to go from concept to release, the market requirements will change and we will end up with a solution that is no longer valuable. For both mechanical and software solutions, we work to release early and often, with sometimes smaller releases, as we work toward a complete solution. In the end, this allows us to adapt to changing market needs, without compromising an entire project due to either being too slow to market or not being able to adapt to changing market requirements.
Finally, we’ve changed our service model. We’ve gone from a few designated service people to the entire team being capable of and expected to help with customer service requests. This one change has had the biggest impact, both internally and externally. There’s less handing off and the need for follow up internally, and externally it’s resulted in a faster turnaround time for support requests and happy customers.
What are you doing to stay ahead of the whirlwind? If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you’ve got to be intentional. This means designating real time to thinking about the industry, your business model and the needs of your customers. What is not working? What needs improvement? What do your customers want that you don’t offer? Look for opportunities and be willing to change.
Remember: Change will happen, even if you resist it. You’ve got to direct the change and be willing to toss industry norms, processes and procedures on their heads.