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Seed Treatments May Affect Bean Exports

Greg G. Horstmeier
DTN Production Editor

COLUMBIA, Mo. (DTN) — As the amount of treated soybean seed climbs, seed companies and farmers will have to deal more with the issue of leftover, treated seed.

Before the rise of seed treatment in soybeans, any leftover, unplanted seed could simply be mixed in with harvested soybeans and turned into food and feed products. Treated seed that is coated with fungicides and insecticides can’t be consumed and must be planted or destroyed.

Earlier this week, press reports said Chinese soybean importers detected a number of pesticides, commonly found in seed treatments, in a shipment of U.S. soybeans.

“It looks like that this is not the first time to find these ‘blue beans’ in the commodity,” said Lin Tan, DTN correspondent, who is familiar with Chinese soybean exports. He said some in the export trade are concerned that China may slow down soybean imports, mainly due to higher price for domestic beans created when the Chinese government set a price floor to protect its farmers as world prices fell.

Press stories likewise said the tainted seed issue was not expected to cause additional slowdown of the importation of U.S. beans.

However, the issue of treated soybeans ending up in the wrong place is not lost on the seed industry.

The subject of leftover seed was one of several issues discussed by a panel of seed company representatives at the recent American Seed Trade Meeting in Chicago.

Industry estimates put overall seed treatment at above 40 percent. The figure is only expected to increase as new seed treatments become commercially available and as seed in general becomes higher priced. As seed breaks the $40 and $50 per bag levels, the $1 to $3 cost of seed treatment becomes a smaller addition to the overall cost.

In corn, seed treatment is nearly 100 percent. However, seed company experts say that unsold or returned corn seed can be placed in storage and potentially reused in future seasons. Soybean seed typically isn’t carried over, due to its relatively lower value per unit, and because soybean seed germination falls considerably the more it is handled and stored.

More seed companies also look to treat more soybean seed, as the value of seed in general climbs and farmers look for ways to trim input costs by backing off on seeding rates. Lower rates require a higher percentage of planted seed to emerge.

Monsanto, for example, will require all of its new Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybean seed be treated, mainly as insurance for high seed emergence for the varieties that are expected to retail for near $50 per bag, up from the mid-$30s for top seed in 2008.

“We decided to treat 100 percent of our soybeans starting in 2003,” said Scott Beck, vice president of Beck’s Hybrids, Atlanta, Ind. Beck was one of several panelists at the ASTA meeting that discussed the ins and outs of seed treatments.

NO SEED LEFT BEHIND

“When we moved to 100 percent treated, we thought of it in terms of ‘no seed left behind,'” Beck told the audience. He explained treating gave advantages of better seed emergence, less replanting and overall better plant health. He added that as the demand for treated seed from farmers increased, it became easier to handle seed inventories by simply treating all seed.

“The reality of ‘no seed left behind,'” Beck added quickly, “is the seed that is left behind, in the warehouse.”

Beck said his company typically has no more than 1.5 percent of sales left over or returned by customers, with an average of about half a percent, or 1 bag for every 180 sold.

“You have to really monitor the end-of-planting-season sales, the bags that go out late,” Beck told DTN in an interview. “We try to carefully account for all those, and do take back and dispose of any seed our customers don’t use.”

Leftover treated seed often is shipped to biomass burners, as is unplanted corn hybrid seed, which is essentially all treated with fungicides, and increasingly, with insecticides.

“We have to deal with it in corn, it’s just a little more work to track down the soybean seed and make sure it gets disposed of.” Still, the destruction of soybean seed, particularly at high commodity price levels, is both a loss in income and an added expense, he agreed.

Where in the distribution system seed is actually treated can help reduce the amount of leftover treated seed. Tom Hunsley, who manages soybean seeds for Growmark, said the cooperative does treat some soybean seed centrally, but prefers to let the local retail stores decide how much and which varieties to treat.

“There is much less an issue with carryover if you can do it more on an as-demanded basis,” Hunsley said.

“There is an issue of certifying seed treaters and maintaining quality control,” the farther down the distribution stream treatment happens, he added.

Beck said a recent gathering of seed company officials estimated that slightly more than half of all treating is done at the seed distributor level, with slightly under half treated centrally at a main seed company headquarters. “The feeling was the industry will need to move to more like 80 percent treated downstream, mainly to keep the leftover seed issue to as low an amount as possible,” he said.

Greg D. Horstmeier can be reached at greg.horstmeier@dtn.com


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