Behind the beans
Before they ever reach a farmer’s field, MorSoy varieties face an extreme obstacle course to weed out seed that can’t handle the pressure.
First, the varieties must perform well in replicated variety trials across MFA’s territory. Next, the seedstock needs to survive the rigors of production and processing. Even then, there’s no guarantee the beans will make the cut.
That’s because the final hurdle is the Missouri Crop Improvement Association, where the seed has to pass a battery of tests before it is deemed worthy of MFA’s own MorSoy brand. At the MCIA laboratory in Columbia, Mo., each seed sample undergoes up to nine different evaluations, from germination and purity to herbicide tolerance and accelerated aging.
The result is an objective, scientific assessment of the seed’s quality, said Richard Arnett, MCIA’s executive director, no matter the company, brand, technology or variety involved.
“We are the bridge between research-and-development and the producer,” he explained. “Back in the day, we were the only thing between the seed company and the producer. Today, even though most of the larger companies have their own in-house quality-control program, it’s still important that someone provides unbiased quality assurance, especially with the value in some of these seed traits. For producers to capture that value, they have to make sure to start with seed of known purity so when it gets to the end user, it is what it’s supposed to be.”
MFA Incorporated has used the Show-Me State’s non-profit crop improvement association for inspecting, testing, verifying and certifying seed since 1947. In fact, MFA is the oldest member of the MCIA, which was formed in 1904 as a student club at the University of Missouri. Early work focused on the improvement of corn, eventually branching out into other crops. Today, the MCIA provides inspection and testing services on more than 800 brands or varieties and more than 100 different species or crops.
While MFA’s Seed Division maintains its own strict quality-control procedures from start to finish, having third-party verification by the crop improvement association gives growers added assurance.
“It speaks to the brand and the confidence that our customers have in the brand,” said Steve Fleming, MFA Incorporated Seed Division director. “Growers want to know they are buying a high-quality product, and when they purchase a bag of MorSoy, they know they’re getting that quality. It’s been tested
so thoroughly by the time it gets to the farm, we know it will perform.”
With the MCIA’s independent testing, those claims of quality are backed by more than just MFA’s word. They’re backed by the expertise of registered seed technologists such as Trent Hall, a member of the Society of Commercial Seed Technologists, which works with the Association of Official Seed Analysts to develop the rules for testing seed in the U.S.
“We’ll give you an honest evaluation of your product,” said Hall, a 41-year employee of the MCIA. “Not that other people are dishonest about it, but with the current staff here, we have 135 years’ worth of experience in dealing with seeds grown in Missouri’s environment. We’ve seen it all.”
It takes a special kind of person to analyze seed, Hall said. The job is meticulous, repetitive and exacting.
“You have to be very patient, you have to be conscientious and you have to stay sharp,” he said. “It’s such a detailed process, and standardization is key. It’s important that everyone who tests the product is testing it and evaluating it the same way.”
The MCIA handles around 4,000 samples a year, Hall said. By far, soybean is the most widely tested species, but the lab also analyzes wheat, small grains, grasses and a wide range of miscellaneous seeds. Most recently, he said, cover crop seed has become a bigger part of that mix as the practice has grown more popular in Missouri.
When seed arrives at the lab from the production companies or farmers, key identifying information is recorded in the computer, and then the sample is divided into smaller portions for testing. The number of sub-samples depends on the number of tests to be performed.
“The testing has gotten more complicated as seed traits and value have changed,” Hall said. “When I started here, we did two basic tests: germination and purity. Now, we’re up to nine or more tests per sample.”
For MFA’s MorSoy seed, those tests typically include:
Varietal purity test — Seed samples are scrutinized by MCIA staff for the percentage of pure seed, inert seed, other crop seed and weed seed. They’re also checked for hilum color, which can differentiate off-types.
Normal germination test — Seeds are “planted” on a wet paper towel, rolled up and placed in the germinator for seven days at 77 degrees Fahrenheit to simulate ideal planting conditions. Each test includes a total of 400 seeds, 50 seeds per towel. After seven days, the towels are unrolled, and analysts count the number of seeds that germinated properly.
In Missouri, the minimum germination level for soybeans is 80 percent. For MFA, that’s not good enough, Fleming said.
“Our benchmark is 90 percent germination on soybeans; 95 percent on corn,” he said. “The lower that germ, the higher population you have to plant to get the stand you want to produce the yield that you want. It all goes back to what we want our brand to represent.”
Sand germination test — Seeds are planted in a tray of sand and allowed to germinate for seven days under those “ideal” conditions (77 degrees). MCIA staff then records the percentage of normal germination from that sample, which consists of 100 seeds (200 per flat).
“The rolled towel creates artificial conditions; the seed is constricted and kept in the dark,” Hall explained. “That can exaggerate any damage to the seed. The sand test can be a more accurate test when dealing with diseased samples.”
Treated-seed germination test — Seed is hand-treated in the lab with insecticides or fungicides and then put through the rolled-towel germination test. The treated seeds are then analyzed to see how the treatment affected germination.
Herbicide tolerance — Seeds with tolerance traits for glyphosate and sulfonylurea (STS) are tested in-house at the MCIA lab; others, such as those with dicamba, glufonsinate or 2,4-D tolerance, are sent to other labs equipped to handle them. To test for tolerance, seeds are soaked in the relevant herbicide overnight, rolled in wet towels and then evaluated for germination the next day.
“Depending on the mode of action in the herbicide, any non-tolerant seeds will be stunted in different ways,” Hall said. “The threshold is determined by whoever owns the trait.”
Accelerated aging stress test — Seed is placed in a small, divided tray with 40 milliliters of water in the bottom, and then subjected to temperatures of 105.8 degrees for 72 hours in the lab oven. After the seed is removed from the oven, it undergoes a normal germination test.
“High heat and humidity are the two things that stress seed the most,” Arnett explained. “With the weather conditions we’ve got now, you never know what you’re going to get. People want to know how the seed will react under stress, not just under perfect conditions, which we rarely get.”
Depending on the number of tests performed and the lab’s workload, the entire process can take anywhere from two to four weeks. Arnett, who’s been with MCIA since 1983 when he was a student at Mizzou, says most farmers and even industry personnel have no idea how much testing goes behind those beans.
“Most of what we do here, people don’t ever think about,” Arnett said. “They just assume that when the truck pulls up to deliver their seed, they don’t have to worry about it. They trust that the seed is what it’s supposed to be; it’s pure, and it’s going to germinate. But so much goes into making sure growers have that assurance.”
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