Seedcare Institute

Ravi Ramachandran, Ph.D., head of the Syngenta North America Seedcare Institute, discusses the process of test new seed coating formulations. The Seedcare Institute uses a full-scale seed treater to ensure every formulation and seed treatment behaves properly during the treating process. Photo by Peter Scharpe.

STANTON, Minn. – Seed treatments have come a long way over the past 20 years. In most modern seed treatments – fungicides, insecticides, nematicides, beneficial microbes and plant health boosters are all placed directly on the seed. Companies like Syngenta continue to launch innovative products and have a pipeline of new active ingredients yet to be introduced. With each new active ingredient comes agronomic benefits to the growers, but also significant challenges to the scientists who formulate the products.

“We need to take that molecule to market, and that's really where The Seedcare Institute comes into play,” said Ravi Ramachandran, Ph.D., head of The Syngenta North America Seedcare Institute in Stanton. “The formulation needs to be developed, and that's about taking the active ingredient and converting it to a deliverable form so that it can stick and stay on the seed, and that's where the journey begins from lab-to-land.”

At The Seedcare Institute, every seed treatment product is thoroughly tested from the very beginning, starting with the development of the formulation through a mix of active ingredients, to how it coats the seeds in the treating equipment, to how the treated seed goes through the planter and then how it affects the young plant in the field.

Looking at just the formulation of the product, seed treatments have more active ingredients than they have in the past, but their use rates have dropped.

“Modern seed treatments are highly effective and are based on low use rate chemistry, and you need to apply just one to two grams on a hundred pounds of seed or 100 kilograms of seed – that means literally coating few atoms and molecules on every seed,” said Ramachandran.

It takes about three to four years to develop a seed treatment formulation.

That involves not just making sure the active ingredients can coexist in the same mixture, but also tailoring the treatment recipe to the type of seed it is being applied to. Each crop seed has its own shape, size, and unique texture, and they all adhere treatments differently.

“You need to have the best formulation that is stable and of high quality, and then you need to have a precise application process enabled by properly calibrated equipment,” he said. “You need to tailor the formulation to the local equipment and the environment. You should be able to treat in the frigid northern regions like Canada, where people are treating with the air temperature still below freezing, all the way to warm locations in the South, such as Texas, where they are treating when the air temperature is 105-110 F.”

Inside The Seedcare Institute is an industrial-sized seed treatment setup as well as several smaller units. They are able to test every formulation on any type of seed under real-world conditions to ensure the treatment coats evenly and stays on the seed.

“We have climate simulation chambers to see how the products adhere to the seed at different climate conditions,” he said. “That is really unique for Stanton.”

These chambers allow the seed treatment formulations to be applied in cold or warm temperatures, as well as humid or dry weather conditions. They can then alter the recipe for different regions to ensure the product goes on as evenly as it should, dries on the seed as it should and can be stored and transported in the box without issue.

“Once you put the product on the seed, it should stay on the seed,” he said. “Staying on the seed is really about checking the quality assessment, and we do 16 different quality assessments for every new formulation.”

Some of these tests include tumbling a sample of treated seed through a rotating vacuum chamber. Air is pulled from the seed chamber through a filter to determine the amount of seed treatment dust coming off the seed. If the filter shows too much dust, the treatment recipe is re-worked.

They also test how much product and active ingredients make it onto the seed through seed load tests.

“The third step is to ensure seed treatments have no detrimental impact on these high-value seeds. The chemicals should not have a negative impact on the germination and vigor of the seed,” said Ramachandran.

Treated seeds are allowed to germinate and grow in various mediums. Some are planted into soils with diseases present that the treatment is meant to protect against. They are monitored throughout their lifecycle to see how the treatment helps protect the emerging seedlings and establish uniform plant stand.

The final step in testing seed treatments is to ensure the treated seed will go through a planter easily. The Seedcare Institute has a lab with a John Deere planter set up to allow for field planter testing of treated seeds. They monitor seed singulation, skips or doubles at planting, dust-off from the planter rows and wear on the planter itself.

The ‘planted’ seed is recovered and can be tested to see if any seed treatment was lost during the planting process.

“We want to ensure our products meet the market needs. There is no point in bringing new technology to the market if it creates buildup in the treaters or plugs the planters,” he said. “We are here to serve our customers; customer service is at the heart of The Seedcare Institute.”