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Confection Planting Seed Minus a Hull?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010
filed under: Planting Systems

Among the most dramatic trends in the U.S. confection sunflower industry during the past decade has been the expanded demand for large in-shell seeds. Twenty years ago, in-shells comprised probably 40% of the seeds harvested from the nation’s confection sunflower fields; today that percentage is 75-80%, or even higher in a given year.

The growth of in-shells has been driven by two primary factors: (1) greater consumer demand for the extra-large seeds (both export and domestic) and (2) the utilization of conoils and/or oil-types to fill more of the sunflower kernel and bird food market needs.

While confection growers are economically rewarded for producing the large in-shells, there is, concurrently, a downside: the size of the planting seed. As a group, the newer confection hybrids are larger than their older counterparts. That can translate into added challenges while planting — e.g., more seed damage in the planter, less consistency in seed placement (hence less uniformity of plant stands) — and, sometimes, delayed, haphazard and lower germination/emergence.

Because the confection processing industry wants the farmer to harvest as many pounds of in-shells as possible, “we’re trying to develop unique hybrids for him,” points out Bob Majkrzak, president and CEO of Red River Commodities. “Those hybrids have gotten longer and wider. Though the farmer would prefer planting smaller, rounder seeds, such types are not going to produce the extra large in-shells that the marketplace is demanding.”

What’s the solution? A key part of the answer, Majkrzak believes, could lie in a seemingly drastic approach: removing the seed hull prior to planting.

That’s not as far-fetched as it may sound, he says. But, some key hurdles would have to be researched and overcome prior to hull-less planting seed becoming a reality.

• The first hurdle is the mechanical removal of the hull. How can this be accomplished without damaging the kernel inside? “Planting seeds are very expensive material — $4.00 or so per pound,” Majkrzak notes. “If your hulling process is going to crack, chip or otherwise damage even 20% of them, that’s a pretty substantial loss.”

• The second challenge is to adequately identify and separate the viable, vigorous seed kernels from those that are damaged or not worthy of planting for some other reason. Protecting the kernel’s growing tip is critical.

• Finally, coating and/or pelleting systems would need to be developed to (1) make the hull-less seeds consistent in size and shape for the farmer to plant uniformly, (2) serve as a transporter for any added fungicides or other products, and (3) protect the integrity of the seeds during handling, transportation and storage.

The sugarbeet seed industry could serve as a model. Virtually all the beet seed presently sold in the United States is pelleted or at least film-coated. Pelleted beet seeds are round and very consistently sized. The result is more-uniform plant spacing and emergence. The beet pellet also is a safe, effective carrier of fungicide and insecticide treatments.

The hull-less sunflower planting seedconcept is not brand new. Red River Commodities itself has planted irrigated trials (successfully) in Texas in recent years. Another confection processor conducted several side-by-side trials with hull-less and regular planting seed, but experienced an unacceptable percentage of “abnormal” plants in the hull-less group — even when using special dehulling equipment. Damage to the kernel tip proved difficult to avoid in that case.

Theoretically, a hull-less seed should sprout and emerge quicker and more evenly, creating a uniform crop when spraying for insects and diseases. Harvesting should be more timely as well.

Equally important would be the consistent seed placement, reducing skips and doubles. For the past several years, the National Sunflower Association’s annual crop survey has found unsatisfactory plant spacing as the number-one yield reduction factor — this despite improvements in planter technology.

Majkrzak believes the hull-less planting seed concept is well worth serious exploration — and on an industry-wide basis. “We need a collaborative effort among people on the research side who can look at (1) the mechanical removal of the hull, (2) the sorting process – ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ kernels, and (3) the coating systems that would make the seed exact, easy to plant, and also can serve as a transport vehicle for seed protectants,” he says.

“Once those things are accomplished, the farmers know what to do,” he continues. “I have 100% belief that when we give the right tools to the growers, they’ll do the job right to get exactly what we want. And they will see a boost in yield — and revenue for themselves — because they’ll be growing more of what we want off the field.”

There seems to be preliminary consensus among members of the National Sunflower Association Research Committee that this endeavor is worth pursuing. The NSA has begun contacting university groups who may have the expertise to evaluate special hulling methods, seed germ damage prevention and added seed coatings.

Should the NSA (and/or the confection processors specifically) zero in and start funding such research, progress could be fairly rapid, Majkrzak believes, as all three areas of research could proceed simultaneously.

“This is probably the biggest single thing we can do to improve returns for both the confection grower and the processor,” he concludes. “If you can bring me 5 to 10% more in-shell out of every load, it means more to us in dollars. And that, in turn, drives the price we pay the grower.” — Don Lilleboe
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