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Published March 22, 2010, 04:16 PM

Pioneer making seed for 2010 despite 2009 moisture issues

WAHPETON, N.D. — The crop of 2009 hasn’t left the stage, but the crop of 2010 is waiting in wings, preparing for its appearance.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

WAHPETON, N.D. — The crop of 2009 hasn’t left the stage, but the crop of 2010 is waiting in wings, preparing for its appearance.

Nowhere is the behind-the-scenes pace quicker than the Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. soybean seed production plant in Wahpeton, N.D. The facility is a major fixture along North Dakota Highway 13, about 3 miles west of Wahpeton.

“Industrywide this past year, the biggest challenge has definitely been seed moisture because of the delayed harvest,” says Wayne Drahota, assistant manager of the plant. “Of course, the moisture is-

sues started last spring with a wet spring and delayed planting. The summer was cool and seed producers didn’t get the heat units early as they typically would.”

The company’s contract growers harvested a respectable, despite it all, Drahota says.

“We had a nice harvest window in September,” he says. “We got about 30 percent of it done that month. But all of October was wet. About half of the crop was harvested in November, and our last field was harvested Dec. 12. “

Pioneer, of course, is a powerhouse in soybean seed. The other biggies include Monsanto with its DeKalb/Asgrow brands, followed by numerous smaller companies.

The talk in the industry is that soybean seed supply will be tight. Drahota doesn’t address that directly, except to say Pioneer’s supply will be “sufficient to meet the company’s sales force demand for quality seed.”

Drahota says seed germination rates have remained good.

Appearance has been good, but moisture has been a challenge. Still, seed Pioneer puts out finished-batch mixture at the company’s 14 percent moisture standard,” he says.

Pioneer’s Wahpeton facility is rated at about 2.5 million of the 50-pound “units” that farmer’s plant. It takes 1.3 to 1.5 units to seed an acre, so the facility puts out enough seed to handle roughly 1.8 million acres a year, give or take. Wahpeton services the company’s soybean seed needs for all of North Dakota, the northern half of South Dakota, the northwest corner of Wisconsin and northern Minnesota and a small part of eastern Montana.

An industry leader

Pioneer’s Wahpeton facility is one of about a dozen such plants of its general size in the Upper Midwest.

“We’re growing,” Drahota says, not-ing the Wahpeton plant has seen annual increases of roughly 10 percent per year in the past three years.

Drahota has been at his post about nine months, having transferred from the corporate office in Johnstown, Iowa.

This facility has 21 full-time employees, as well as part-time regulars. It contracts roughly 100,000 acres of seed production, with the intent of packaging about 2.5 million units of quality seed.

“The goal is to be done packaging by mid-February,” Drahota says. “In the first part of March, we’ll throttle back to a more normal shift.”

Farmers understand the basic steps.

“A lot of what farmers are paying for is quality testing, varietal purity and new genetics,” Drahota says. “In the past, varieties would continue for 10 years. These days, they last three or four years and are often replaced with something new.”

Soybean seed today includes yield factors, but more defensive traits against soybean pests. Soybean seed often includes licensed traits or is protected by the Plant Variety Protection Act, so farmers typically purchase seed annually.

“It’s up to our research department to identify those varieties that fit in this market the best. Our job is to condition the seed and meet our quality standards and distribute to our sales force,” he says.

Spreading risk

The Wahpeton facility takes production from about 209 growers from an area ranging from the Canadian border and about 90 miles to the east, south and west.

Some seed growers for Pioneer have been growing seed continuously for this plant since it plant was established in the 1980s. The majority of seed producers grow both seed and commercial soybeans.

“From our perspective, that’s good because it spreads our risk,” Drahota says. “We’re counting on production to have a salable product. They have the option of doing commercial acres first and then doing seed acres when they’re 100 percent ready for making high-quality seed.”

The company brings in about 400,000 bushels — a small percentage of the total — right off the combine at harvest.

“That’s handled less than any other seed, so it’s typically our best-quality seed,” Drahota says.

At Pioneer, seed producers can earn premiums per bushel over their selling price, depending on the quality of seed provided, Drahota says. The best premiums go to seed lots with low clean-out percentages, the few “splits” and within acceptable moisture and germination ranges.

Through the growing season, fields are monitored by the company for purity and quality. In the post-harvest season, bins are sampled and tested for visual quality, germination and moisture.

Once the producer has met the company’s criteria for making seed, Pioneer schedules a time to have the beans delivered to the plant.

The plant brings in a minimum of 35 trucks in a day, and as many as 70 a day, depending on the time of year. Intake supervisors do a visual check and check samples for moisture and test weight, before unloading the seed.

The seed “conditioning” process in Wahpeton runs about 1,100 bushels an hour, or an average of some 25,000 bushels a day. Much of process involves three primary steps.

n Air screen cleaners. A round-hole screen removes things such as pods and stems. A second set of small, slotted screens takes out things such as split beans, wheat seed or other small pieces.

n Spiral separators. This is a series of 32 spiral cores that separate the high-quality good beans using centrifugal force.

n Specific “gravity” table separators. There are three of these, each with 400-bushel-per-hour capacity, sorting by density. Lightweight seed are removed, leaving intact, good test weight, high-density seed, taking out lighter seed, including those with cracked seed coats. After the gravity tables, the seed is ready for packaging — paper bags, jumbo bags or ProBoxes. There’s the standard 50-pound paper bag. There are Pioneer ProBox, black plastic boxes, which an amount equal 50 bags. They also put seed into similar sized “jumbo” bags.

About half of the facility’s seed output is delivered to sales representatives in bulk form. Drahota speculates that the reason for more bulk seed sales in this region is because farmers often operate larger farms than in other areas.

“This geography in this region is unique in North America,” Drahota says. “Such a high percentage — nearly half of our production — goes to sales rep bin sites in bulk and not into a finished package. Bulk is a growing part of the business, industrywide. You’re seeing more reps with two, four or more hopper bottom bins that contain conditioned seed and will sell directly to their customers from that,” he says.

“We’ve had a successful year, have done a good job of providing quality seed for our customers and will continue to do so,” Drahota says. “I anticipate additional growth in the future.”