All Aboard the Seed Corn Supply Chain

July 27, 2012 09:38 PM
All Aboard the Seed Corn Supply Chain

Companies manage risk and needs on the production end to guarantee farmers have seed at planting

Months of planning, complex logistics and many miles go into a bag of seed before it reaches your farm. One derailment in the supply chain means farmers might not be able to purchase their preferred variety or even fill their planting needs.

In 2011, the U.S. seed corn crop was much smaller than expected, similar to most farmers’ corn yields. "When growers get good yields on their fields, we typically get good yields on our seed fields. When a grower has less-than-expected yields, so do we," says Ben Kaehler, general manager for seed affiliates at Dow AgroSciences.

Kaehler says last year was a difficult seed production year due to extremely hot and dry weather. "Our production was certainly less than expected due to the environmental conditions. It was cut shorter than we ever recall."

The vast majority of seed corn is produced in the Midwest. But, in years such as 2011, seed corn production can be shifted to tropical areas, including South America, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, to reduce shortfalls in supply.

Tom Burrus, president of Burrus Hybrids, says his company aims to produce its entire corn seed crop in the U.S. But 2011’s high temperatures stole yields in their Illinois fields, so they had to rely heavily on winter production in Chile and Argentina.

In South America, seed corn is planted in September or early October and after five months, in February or March, it is ready to be harvested and then shipped back to the U.S.

After harvest, it takes about 30 days to dry and ship the seed to the U.S., Burrus says.

"With early planting, it was mighty close to be able to supply the seed needed to keep the planters running," he explains. "We were able to do it. But many of the bags of seed never made it into the warehouse; they went directly onto trucks and into planters."

To meet the needs of customers, Syngenta’s corn genetics portfolio manager Eric Boersma says, his company uses winter production in emergency situations. "We try to do as much as we can in the Corn Belt," he says. Because it’s more expensive, and has much tighter timing, Syngenta historically tries to keep winter production in South America to a smaller quantity, reserving it for brand-new genetic or trait packages.

As with commercial corn production, the major wild card is weather. Unfavorable conditions at pollination, too much water, drought or damaging winds can destroy a field of seed corn.

Dan Case, DuPont Pioneer supply planning manager, says his company spreads its corn seed production across more than 20 locations in the Midwest to better its odds of producing a
quality crop. "One of the ways to reduce risk is to spread specific products out across multiple geographies."

At the field level, he says, DuPont Pioneer agronomists work with growers to select fields that are well-drained and well-suited for seed production. "Additionally, we manage our planting timeline to avoid heat as much as possible, especially during pollination."

Once the crop is up and growing, Case says, agronomists constantly monitor the crop’s condition and plan for any seed shortages. "We can quickly assimilate those issues and determine the overall impact to our supply."

Additionally, seed companies plant extra seed each year to help compensate for potential yield losses. "All companies try to plan for some seed to carry over. You don’t start fresh with a brand-new pile every year," says Shawn Schrader, North American corn manufacturing lead for Monsanto.

Most seed companies contract with Midwestern growers to produce seed. "Companies tend to produce seed in the same areas. There’s a known group of farmers who are seed producers," says Dow’s Kaehler.

Seed Corn Production

seed corn production

To cut down on logistical problems and cost, most seed corn is produced in the Corn Belt. Should weather rob yields, companies head to tropical climates to make up the difference.

A good seed production field will yield 60 bu. to 70 bu. per acre. The farmer receives a premium for growing seed corn. "The revenue that a grower gets off those 60 bu. or 70 bu. has to be comparable to what you would get in a normal production year of typical corn. We pay a significant premium," Kaehler adds.

Forecasting needs, wants. Another key challenge in seed production is predicting exactly what customers will want to plant.

"Any seed business is first and foremost about inventory—what you have, how much you have and where it is," says Kevin Coey, director of F.I.R.S.T. (Farmer’s Independent Research of Seed Technologies). "If you can’t manage that, it doesn’t matter how good your product is."

Coey says companies have learned to be aggressive about producing enough units to meet customer demand. "The last thing in the world a seed company wants is to not be able to sell seed to you," he adds.

Syngenta’s Boersma says his company plans two years ahead of when growers are going to buy their seed, which can be tough with an ever-changing lineup of products. "This process has always been a bit difficult, but the more that traits and genetics churn within a portfolio, the more challenging it gets," he says.

Companies strive to make sure parent seed isn’t the limiting factor on producing a hybrid, Boersma adds. "You want to produce more than you necessarily need to make sure you meet the needs of your customer. Seed production is very complex, highly dependent on the environment, and there are a lot of moving parts."

2012 Seed Corn Outlook

In early spring, seed companies, like most farmers, were feeling great about the 2012 growing season. Tom Burrus, president of Burrus Hybrids, says his company planted its corn seed crop in good time and was set up for good yields.

As of early July, Burrus’ production area was short on rain and high on temperature. He says a corn plant begins to extrude pollen in the morning when the dew goes off, but that process slows and stops as temperatures rise. "If you watch your thermometer, once it reaches 90°F, you know the pollination is done for the day." Many areas of the Corn Belt were reaching that pivotal temperature as early as 8 a.m. in early July, so the pollination window was dangerously small, Burrus says.

Shawn Schrader, Monsanto’s North American corn manufacturing lead, says his company’s seed corn fields, which are located across the Corn Belt from Nebraska to Michigan, experienced challenging growing conditions at the beginning of the summer. At press time, he said it was too early to know the impact of the high temperatures on pollination.

Even though the majority of Burrus’ production fields are irrigated, the lack of rainfall will still hurt overall yields, he says. "If the forecast stays true, we’ll need to make decisions and provisions to go back to Chile and Argentina to produce seed again this winter," he adds.

Schrader says Monsanto is poised to use winter production to make minor adjustments to the total supply plan. "We also have the capability to use our winter production capacity to a greater extent if supply conditions warrant additional production in order to meet customer needs."


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