The benefits of planting crops with treated seed are not always visible

“If the product isn’t applied properly and uniformly over the seed you are wasting chemistry because you’re not getting the benefit out in the field. There’s a fine balance there and it doesn’t take long to lose any advantage.” — Peter Galloway

There is a bit of blind faith that comes with using a fungicide treatment on every batch of seed. The product goes on and then goes in the ground, but unless you have some sort of well-monitored, on-farm trial or a real wreck with an adjoining field planted with untreated seed, you may never know for sure how effective the treatment was.

Research shows that treated versus untreated seed can produce a two to five per cent yield advantage, more even emergence and crop maturity, and in some cases, improved crop quality. You’ll hear people say that it only takes an extra half bushel to one-and-a-half bushels of yield (depending on the crop and market value) to cover the cost of treatment.

Farmers interviewed for this month’s panel have used seed treatments with slightly varying degrees of commitment for several years. Does the treatment work? Does it pay? Is it good insurance in case a soil borne disease or other disease stress comes along?

Here is what this month’s panel members had to say:

SCOTT BONNOR ABERNETHY, SASK.

Although Scott Bonnor has used a standard seed treatment on his cereal grains for many years, he says it doesn’t hurt to test the value or effectiveness of the treatment every once in a while.

He figures he will do a side-by-side field comparison on his Abernethy-area farm this year to see if there is any obvious difference in crop growth and yield.

“To some extent it is a cost factor,” says Bonnor. “If it is not doing the job, why spend the money on it? Some practices we do year after year, and I’m not saying seed treatment doesn’t have value, I just think it is something we should do a field comparison on to see if it makes a difference.”

Bonnor, who is on the board of directors of the Indian Head Agricultural Research Foundation, is scaling back his farming operation after cropping about 3,000 acres of grains and oilseeds for many years.

In 2009, he’ll seed about 640 acres, with about 150 acres in durum and CPS wheat and the balance seeded to flax and French green lentils. He usually applies Vitavax to wheat seed to control soil borne diseases such as smut and common root rot.

“We use a pretty basic system for applying a seed treatment,” says Bonnor. “We just trickle the Vitavax onto the seed as it’s augered into the drill.” He follows a one-pass direct seeding system using a Harmon drill with openers on 12-inch spacing. Anhydrous ammonia is applied at time of seeding, with the seed placed above and to the side of the fertilizer.

Depending on the year, Bonnor plans to start seeding by the first of May. “Last year was a cool, dry spring, so any crops seeded in early May got off to a slow start. So it may be hard to judge whether the seed treatment makes a difference.

“I have one field with a natural break in the middle I will use this year to make a side-by-side comparison of treated versus untreated seed.”

BILL WILTON ILE DES CHENES, MAN.

As a believer in the value of seed treatment, Bill Wilton says he will extend his seed treatment program to include oats this coming year.

Noting often that oats is an “ignored” crop, he says seldom is a seed treatment for the cereal grain recommended. “I have asked a few times whether there is a value in seed-treating oats and often the response is along the lines of “Don’t worry about it, just use a higher seeding rate”,” says Wilton, who crops about 1,400 acres in the Red River Valley, just south of Winnipeg. “Oats are a pretty flexible and forgiving crop, but it does respond to good management. In our area a 100-bushel per acre yield is pretty average. And depending on the market it can provide a good return. I will try treating oats in 2009 to see if there is a difference.”

Wilton’s crop mix includes canola, hard red spring wheat and oats. He has grown the InVigor canola line for the past five years and that seed already comes treated with Helix XTra. For the past three years, he has farm-applied Raxil to wheat seed just at seeding.

“We have a simple home-made set-up for applying the seed treatment as we auger the seed from the bin into the truck,” he says. “The option is there to have it commercially applied, but we feel we get pretty good coverage. The treatment goes on as the seed is augered into the truck and then the seed is mixed again as it is moved from the truck into the hopper of the air seeder. And we do that no more than a day before seeding.

“I don’t know if the seed treatment makes a huge difference, but I feel we are seeing better crop emergence. Often we have cool, wet conditions here and it seems we’re always trying to seed earlier. Sometimes that seed will sit there for a while, so I think protecting the seeds from soil borne diseases does make a real difference in emergence.”

Wilton says considering the overall cost of crop inputs, the $2.50 to $3 per acre for a seed treatment is relatively minor.

PETER GALLOWAY FORT SASKATCHEWAN, ALTA.

Galloway figures if the profit margins on his Edmonton-area farm are so narrow that the cost of a seed treatment will make a difference, then he has bigger issues to worry about.

Galloway and his brother Jim produce both commercial crops and pedigreed seed as part of Galloway Seed Farms at Fort Saskatchewan. Applying a seed treatment to all crops has been a standard part of their operation for nearly 50 years.

“When our seed plant was built in 1961, it included commercial seed treating equipment,” he says. “We’ve been doing it forever. It’s just a standard part of our operation for the crops we grow. Not every farmer wants treated seed. Only about one-third of the seed we sell is treated before it leaves our yard, although a lot of people will treat seed at home.”

Galloway, who crops about 2,700 acres of barley, wheat, canola, and field peas, says there are probably some years when treating seed doesn’t make any difference in crop growth, or maturity or yield. “But the thing is you don’t know what year that is,” he says. “I think the research and the experience is there telling us that seed treatments do work to protect the seed and seedlings against seed-and soil-borne diseases.

“As farmers we generally accept the fact that herbicides are 98 or 99 per cent effective in providing weed control. I think we have to have the same confidence in seed treatments. Am I going to get a higher yield every year because I treat seed? Not likely. But maybe the benefit will be there in improved emergence, and a more vigorous and uniform crop. Maybe the benefit will be in a better quality seed. Some of the general information shows that treating seed will increase yields two to three per cent over untreated seed. And I have no reason not to believe them.”

Galloway says a lot of factors will determine the effectiveness of a seed treatment on any given year. “With field peas, for instance, there is a big difference in disease risk depending on whether you seed the crop on April 20 or May 20. Seeding into warmer soil makes a difference. There are probably times when you don’t need a seed treatment, but you don’t know.”

Galloway says with cereals, for example, there is a range of seed treatment products available from three main manufacturers — BASF, Syngenta Crop Protection Canada and Bayer Crop Science.

While each product is marketed a bit differently, Galloway says they are all effective and selecting one product over another “is like do you drive a Ford or a Chev? They all do a good job.”

While on his farm he has a commercial seed treater available, he says there is nothing wrong with producers treating their own seed at home. He says it is important to make sure the equipment is calibrated properly to apply the proper rate. “And from a quality of application standpoint, you need to make sure you’re not putting 100 per cent of chemical on 20 per cent of the seed.

“With home treatment systems you have to watch that you’re not spending more than you need to by applying more product than necessary to get the coverage. On the other hand, if the product isn’t applied properly and uniformly over the seed you are wasting chemistry because you’re not getting the benefit out in the field. There’s a fine balance there and it doesn’t take long to lose any advantage.”

Lee Hart is field editor of Grainews, based in Calgary. Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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