Ride Between the Rows: Part One

Beck's grower Kent Baker applies talc powder as he prepares to plant seed corn May 29 near Mount Pleasant, IA. The powder helps the seed flow through the planter. (Chris Lusvardi photos)
Beck's grower Kent Baker applies talc powder as he prepares to plant seed corn May 29 near Mount Pleasant, IA. The powder helps the seed flow through the planter. (Chris Lusvardi photos)

Editor’s Note: This is the first story in the Ride Between the Rows series providing a behind-the-scenes look at Beck’s seed corn production process. Check back on the progress in July for detasseling and September for harvest. For more photos and videos from the tour, go to the Seed Today Facebook page.

Written by Chris Lusvardi, Seed Today editor

Adam Smith helps to load seed corn into a planter.
Adam Smith helps to load seed corn into a planter.

Mount Pleasant, IA (May 29, 2024) - As Adam Smith stands looking at a map in his office, he explains how each growing season starts with hopes that planting can go according to plan.

Smith, the corn grower manager for Beck’s in Mount Pleasant, IA, shows that the fields are spread out to the north and east of the facility all the way to the Mississippi River.

Smith points out planting nearby fields in an organized, timely fashion can help work go efficiently later in the season. But as can be expected, Smith knows from past experience to be flexible as the weather dictates when everything can be done.

This spring has been no exception with a high amount of rainy weather to delay planting.

“The plan got thrown out of the window by the middle of May,” Smith says. “We’ve got to be ready to go as soon as everything’s ready.”

Smith says they have ways to get everything back on track and the process running as smoothly as possible as he points out over 30 steps in the seed corn production process that are done throughout the season.

Beck’s provided Seed Today with a look on May 29 at the early stages of this year’s seed corn production process, with plans to continue following the progress at stages later in the season.

Working With Growers

Kent Baker prepares to plant Beck's seed corn.
Kent Baker prepares to plant Beck's seed corn.

In the Mount Pleasant area, Beck’s contracts with about 50 growers on 14,000 acres of seed corn production. Beck’s has operated the Mount Pleasant facility since 2015.

Working with growers is one of four models that can be used with each of the company's production sites operating differently. Smith says the models are owner-run, custom, grower operated, and turnkey.

Beck’s, which has been producing hybrid seed corn since starting with 80 acres in 1937, also focuses on its hybrid seed corn production near its headquarters in Atlanta, IN, along with key sites in El Paso, IL and Coon Rapids, IA. Over the years, Beck’s has grown to become the third largest seed corn brand in its marketing area and the largest in Indiana.

One of the ways Smith says the production process is set-up to make-up for less-than-favorable planting conditions is with the amount of equipment that is available and advancements in technology.

They can have 30-40 planters running in the area, having covered up to 2,900 acres in one day, Smith says.

“With high-speed planters, we can cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time,” Smith says. “We started planting May 6 and with two weekends of planting after that, we covered 2,000 acres a day. They can get done quick because growers have become so comfortable with using GPS that they can just go.”

Smith notes they don’t want to start too soon in the season, needing to wait for warmer temperatures.

“We want warm ground,” Smith says. “It seems like the corn will really pop out of the ground quicker. It really makes life easier to wait.”

Timely planting sets the stage for steps later in the process as work depends on where the plants are in their growth cycle. Smith says while technology has advanced to help with some of the work that needs to be done, some steps including detasseling still need to be completed by hand with a team of workers.

Knowing when to expect the plants to be ready can help when trying to organize and having the teams ready, he notes.

Seed Treatment

Adam Smith shows how treated seed can help plants grow.
Adam Smith shows how treated seed can help plants grow.

Seed treatment is another tool that can be used to control plant growth. Smith says Beck’s has been using the BioNik™ plant growth regulator since 2015, which is tailored for hybrid seed corn production.

BioNik delays germination on male inbred lines, widens the pollen shed window, and ultimately maximizes the “nicking zone,” improving synchronization of pollen shedding of male flowers and female silks. It also effectively increases the amount of pollen shed by the males.

According to Smith, using that type of seed treatment has helped reduce the number of passes the grower has to make through each field, helping to save time and costs.

“We can change the recipe if we get delayed,” Smith says. “It helps us play the weather game.”

Isolation

Soybeans are used in between seed corn fields to provide isolation for the corn plants.
Soybeans are used in between seed corn fields to provide isolation for the corn plants.

Smith says particular attention is paid to how and where seed corn is planted as it shouldn’t be planted just anywhere. He says growers need to be mindful of what will be growing around it, so isolation is an important part of the process.

Smith notes seed corn should be planted at least 330 feet from direct exposure to other corn. Usually, he says, at least a 660-foot buffer is used, whether that’s with other crops such as soybeans planted, roadways, or open ground in between.

Isolating the plants helps to control where the wind can take pollen, Smith says.

“We do not want seed corn contaminated by a commercial neighbor,” Smith says. “We want to keep everything pure. We give growers an isolation map and they can ask their neighbors. We want to know what is going on the land.”

Smith explains row patterns of either four female to one male or four female to two males are utilized in each field to spread out pollen.

Field Scouting

Adam Smith points out how rows of seed corn are planted.
Adam Smith points out how rows of seed corn are planted.

As the season continues, Smith says each production field is scouted by Beck’s employees at least once a week. One of their goals is to help growers make decisions about what chemicals to apply to minimize disease, insect, and weed pressure.

In the coming weeks, Smith says they plan to have growers be able to get into and spray all of the fields with herbicides to help control weeds.

In the Mount Pleasant area, Smith says nine field managers work with growers, becoming quite familiar with all of the ground they cover.

“They know all the hot spots,” Smith says. “They’ve been on them so much. We’ll send scouting reports every week.”

Later in the season, he says the team will be gathering information to assist in providing yield estimates.