Like a cocoon shelters a developing butterfly, seed treatments wrap a protective blanket around corn and soybean seed and seedlings, shielding them from potential diseases and pests.
During the past decade, seed treatments have gone from near obscurity to superstar status with a value that’s quickly increasing in size and scope, both for farmers and the companies that produce them. Today, seed treatments comprise a $2.5 billion global business, according to Kline & Company, an international consulting firm based in Little Falls, N.J.
In the U.S., the No. 1 seed treatment market, roughly all seed corn and 50% of all soybean seed is coated with a fungicide, insecticide, nematicide or a combination of the three prior to planting. Industry experts anticipate those percentages to climb.
Syngenta Seeds bulk equipment specialist Gary Wietgrefe estimates that by 2012 approximately 80% of soybean seed in the U.S. will be treated prior to planting.
A number of financially driven factors have contributed to the rapid adoption of seed treatments, including higher seed values, strong commodity prices and the desire to minimize the risk of losing expensive seed planted in cold, wet soils.
In addition, farmers value seed-applied products for their ease of use and handling safety benefits, notes Gary Munkvold, Iowa State University plant pathologist.
"Seed inputs that can substitute for management practices are highly valued by farmers," he says.
Companies have responded to the opportunity by ramping up their research, production and marketing of seed treatments.
- BASF entered the seed treatment market in 2003 and by 2010 offered 11 different seed treatments across a range of crops and launched its Web site.
- Valent launched Inovate this year. The seed-applied insecticide/fungicide combination for soybeans contains three systemic products: clothianidin, metalaxyl and ipconazole.
- Syngenta Seed Care introduced Avicta Complete Corn, a combination of Avicta seed treatment nematicide, Cruiser seed treatment insecticide and a three-way seed treatment fungicide package that provides consistent, proven protection against nematodes, insects and diseases.
- Bayer CropScience introduced Poncho/Votivo corn nematicide. It contains root-colonizing bacteria that create a living barrier around corn roots to prevent nematodes from feeding, essentially starving the pests or forcing them to find another plant food source.
- Monsanto made Acceleron seed treatment, for early season protection against soilborne and seedborne diseases and early insect pests, a standard part of all Genuity SmartStax corn hybrids and Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybean varieties the company introduced this year.
For 2011, soybean producers will have the option to treat their Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield or Roundup Ready soybeans with Acceleron, a competitive product or no seed treatment at all.
Along with new products, corn and soybean growers can anticipate having access next year to revamped seed treatments that are packed with new benefits.
Syngenta is close to launching Avicta Complete Corn with a four-way fungicide, says Cliff Watrin, Technical Manager for Syngenta Seed Care.
Research into non-traditional seed treatments also is advancing, he notes.
"We’ll add more materials to the seed in the future," Watrin says. He anticipates that such materials will enhance plant growth or stimulate naturally occurring plant defense mechanisms to ward off disease or insects.
Part of the success of these new elements will depend upon the sophistication of polymers, which hold the active ingredients on the seed, says Stephanie Zumbach, product manager for seed enhancements at Becker Underwood.
"There’s only a certain amount of slurry you can put on a seed, so we constantly are trying to make our products as concentrated as possible," she says.
For example, she says the first Becker Underwood soybean plantability polymer, Flo Rite 1127 Concentrate, originally used at 2 fl. oz. per hundredweight, was reformulated and concentrated and is now used at 1.5 fl. oz. per hundredweight.
In addition, customer perceptions of products are increasingly important as price tags increase, Zumbach notes. "As seed prices have increased, the appearance of the seed has become much more important," she says.
Munkvold says the marketplace can anticipate the industry will continue to focus on such benefits, what he calls seed enhancements, a broad category for anything that promotes plant growth and productivity without being a pesticide.
"It’s the direction for the future," he says.