No more pink panther
Back in the 1970s, the term “Pink Panther” didn't just apply to the Saturday morning television cartoon character. It also described those who handed the seed treatment Captan. This pink product was the main fungicide seed corn treatment back then.
“Captan was a wettable powder that was not flowable,” says Ray Knake, Midwest product development manager for Bayer CropScience, who started in the seed treatment business back then. The product would be housed in a 50-pound drum that workers would dump for mixing with seed into a 50-gallon container.
“The equipment back then was very basic, all splash and dump,” says Knake. “You would dribble it on, and the treatment and seed mix would tumble in the drum. There also was no system for holding the product on the seed, no binding of products. So, it was common for 30% or more of the product to be dust that came off from the seed.”
Hence, workers would often sport the Pink Panther look.
On the plus side, costs were minimal. “Often, it cost just 15¢ per bag,” says Knake. “It didn't matter if you went over 25% of what was needed. You just more or less slapped it on and hoped that it stuck.”
A later seed protectant, Ortho, greatly improved matters by incorporating a binder into the system.
“Almost immediately, we went from 40% dust to 30% dust,” he says.
More accurate equipment that also was safer to use for workers eventually came on the market.
“Today, things are much better,” says Knake. “Seed treatment technology has gone from hoping it's about right to being nearly an exact science.”
Automated equipment now treats seed in a closed system. Batch-treated seed is dumped from an overhead bin with treated chemicals adjusted by the rate of the seed coming through.
Dust is minimal. “Even if there is dust at the bottom of the treater, the seed absorbs it,” says Knake.
Many products contain ingredients that help seed treatments dry quickly or aid in smooth coverage. Typically, two batch treaters in a seed plant can treat about 400,000 to 500,000 pounds of seed per eight-hour shift.
Soybeans are a different story. Most soybean seed is treated by local seed dealers or retailers upon the farmer's request. That's because treated soybeans do not store well into the next year like corn.
The technology behind seed treatments isn't perfect. A mix of high temperatures and high humidity can sometimes still result in seed treatments gumming up seed at planting. Treatments are tested under worst-case scenarios to help prevent this, says Knake.
More accurate seed treatments also coincide with changes in farming practices.
“When my dad farmed, he would plow, field-cultivate, and harrow the field before planting. By the time he planted the seed, the soil was dry,” he says. “Now that no-till is more popular, you plant the first time you go into the field. The soil is pretty wet, and that's where you need protection from pathogens by using a seed treatment.”