The Science Behind Seed

July 25, 2014 09:59 PM
The Science Behind Seed

Technology advances corn and soybean quality

Years ago, developing quality corn and soybean seed was as much an art as a science, but the latter clearly leads the process today. Industry chalks up the progress to new and improved testing procedures, slowly evolving regulatory processes and marketplace pressure.

Seed quality has improved during the past 20 years thanks to finely honed testing methods in the lab, which today include sophisticated genetic markers, genetic bar codes and state-of-the-art software, says Quentin Schultz, president of BioDiagnostics, a seed testing lab. Vigor tests have improved the most, while germination tests have not advanced as quickly, he adds.  

Schultz anticipates improvements in seed quality to continue as farmers amass data throughout the year and from season to season. For example, big data allows farmers to verify product claims, such as yield. 

Accuracy in testing. "The seed testing industry and government regulations are very conservative," notes Susana Goggi, a seed physiologist at Iowa State University who is devel-oping bioassay, immunoassay and molecular marker tests. 

It might take 10 to 15 years for a new test to be approved and adopted in order to allow trials to be replicated throughout many generations of seed and under different environments. That way, test accuracy is guaranteed, Goggi adds.   

Today, seed companies go far beyond the regulatory standards when it comes to guaranteeing quality for one key reason: Competition is alive and well in an industry with fewer players, notes Beni Kaufman, secretary general of the International Seed Testing Association in Zurich, Switzerland, and president of the Society of Commercial Seed Technologists.  

Farmers expect seed quality to be a non-issue, particularly as genetics and prices have ratcheted up, Schultz says. Problems do crop up once in awhile, though, which echoes the importance of farmer/dealer relationships. 

Farmers must remember that variability exists among seed products, which means they don’t all perform similarly. "Quality depends on who farmers buy seed from and the company," says Neal Foster, executive director of the South Dakota Crop Improvement Association. 

While quality-control measures leave little room for issues, Foster advises farmers to look beyond the label and ask for vigor test data, for example, which indicates how seed performs under cold and wet conditions, if that’s a concern.

Companies are fully aware of how each bag of seed will perform. If tests show a certain corn seed doesn’t fare well under wet and cold conditions, they’ll shift from marketing it in eastern Iowa, where those conditions are more likely, and instead market it in dryer and warmer western Iowa, Foster explains.

Farmers are also advised to pay attention to the shelf life date printed on the label. "Seeds are living organisms and slowly deteriorate," Goggi explains. Unsold corn seed—because corn has a high starch content, which makes a more stable molecule—can be relabeled and resold the following season but not before it is retested, she adds. That’s not true for soybeans because of that seed’s high oil content. 

"U.S. farmers can be very confident they are getting quality seed," Kaufman says. "Quality is built into the regulations. Furthermore, the costs of litigation are high and reputation damages are tough on sales. Companies have invested a lot of money and effort to make sure they don’t screw up."  

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