Confection Seed Development
When it comes to confection seeds, does size matter?
The demand certainly seems to be going in the direction of bigger seeds. Increasingly, the percentage of confection seed size that is over a 20/64 screen is becoming more important with processors. The export market prefers the longer seed, so processors are buying more on seed size, which is becoming more of a price factor.
Seed size is generally evaluated as percentage over a /64th round hole screen. In the past, the scale was comparing 16, 18, 20 and 22. Now that has shifted to comparing 20, 22 and 24. The smaller seeds are still out there and are generally hulled or used as bird seed. The 22/64 and over is used primarily for the in-shell market. Due to the demand for larger seed, the utilization of confection seed has changed.
“ ‘Way back when,’ we saw pretty much a one-third split,” explains Brian Andrew, senior marketing manager with Red River Commodities. “There was a much more even distribution, where one-third of the crop went to in-shell, a third to be hulled and a third to bird seed.”
Now, most confection seed (Andrew estimates 80-85%) is going for in-shell. The 20/64 seed size goes into the domestic in-shell market with the 22 to 24/64 primarily used for the export in-shell market. With the advent of conoil varieties, those seeds are going into the kernel market along with some oils coming in to fill the need in that sector.
“Now we are seeing, 25 to 30% of the crop coming in at 24 or larger,” Andrew says. “I remember in the early ’90s, if you wanted a size 24, you were happy with 2 to 4% of the crop at that.”
The focus has certainly shifted to producing a bigger seed with good test weight, adds Tim Egeland of SunOpta/Dahlgren. “We try to satisfy as many customers with as few varieties as we can,” he says, “and that has become increasingly more difficult because different markets demand different products.”
But the unique aspect about confection processors is that they have two types of customers to satisfy, Egeland points out. One customer is the grower. The processor has to focus on taking care of the supply side by developing a hybrid that the grower likes with an appealing agronomic package. On the demand side, buyers are looking for seeds that each market is asking for in terms of size and length for the consumer.
In numerous foreign countries (e.g., Spain, China, Turkey) consumers eat sunflower one seed at a time — much the same way Americans eat in-shell peanuts. That’s why the larger, longer seeds are desired for export. A steady demand remains in this market, which bodes well for the industry. But it’s not without challenges.
One of those challenges is competing with foreign sellers in the export market. Processors are keenly aware of needing to offer the farmer attractive prices and still protect their margins while maintaining the traditional level of high quality that has come to be expected of U.S. seeds. High- quality seeds are a given in the U.S. — not something foreign buyers have to worry about. Other factors such as delivery timing or price are negotiable, but not quality.
Egeland says there are the constant challenges for the grower in planting the larger seed as well as the processor looking to efficiently process that same seed. In recent years, processors have turned the majority of their focus to the product buyer and have lost sight of focusing on the grower. That, Egeland says, has to swing back in the direction of the farmer as the industry struggles to find acres among the competition from genetically modified crops like soybeans, corn and canola.
Hybrids with better agronomics are evolving as the main focus. Confection processors are looking to maintain large seed size, coupled with enhanced agronomics and yield performance, while keeping profitability of the producer in mind. Those ingredients can be a “tall order” for plant breeders.
Emphasis on breeding for the larger and longer seed began in the late 1990s, and companies are now reaping the benefits of that work. Traditional breeding takes seven to 10 years before something is commercialized (i.e., a new hybrid hits the market), so companies must plan for that.
Joel Schaefer, hybrid seed program manager at CHS, Inc., is at the forefront of the seed size evolution. “When I first started almost 20 years ago, seed size 20 made up the upper fraction of the crop,” he relates. “Now it’s very much the lower end. We’re working on 26 now.”
Size keeps increasing and so do the challenges. One of the biggest challenges to consider with the grower in mind is plantability. In the quest for bigger seeds to sell into the confection market, Schaefer says they’ve created more difficulty for the grower. “We’ve really reached the threshold of the size of seed that the grower can get through his planter. We’re near that edge, if not there already.”
So how does the seed keep getting even bigger if the planting seed is as big as it can get? It goes back to the breeding side. The long and winding road to better hybrids will be made shorter with new molecular tools such as gene marking. The USDA-ARS Sunflower and Plant Biology Research Unit is making great strides with the SNP marker project. Some of the private breeders have access to other molecular tools as well.
Schaefer explains that most of the recent material released by USDA has been oil-type (or, in a few cases, small-seeded confection). Confection breeders have the challenge of taking the new line with the trait of interest into something with a large and long seed for the confection market.
“We start from scratch, essentially, with the oil seed that has that desirable trait, which in some instances might be disease resistance,” Schaefer says. “In order to do this, it takes several generations of backcrossing, screening and selecting. By the time the seed is in a useable form, often times the trait of interest is either diluted or we’ve lost it.”
But Schaefer is hopeful about the USDA sunflower breeding program continuing to play an important role with more work being focused on the confection side than ever before. This is where the SNP program becomes critical. “With that tool, we’ll be able to make that trait more accurate and essentially keep better track of it when we are bringing them forward into new populations.”
Breeders and growers have reason to be optimistic that this will happen sooner than later. “It’s been a little quiet on the SNP project recently, but I think as we look ahead, we are going to turn a sharp corner after the first of the year and make great strides with the SNP project,” Schafer observes.
The project may also help with what Schaefer says is of utmost importance to the industry—yield stability. “We’ve made great strides in the last five years or so in the yield gap between oils and confections. But one thing we need to do as an industry is to establish yield stability,” he explains. “If we can alleviate the yield ‘roller coaster,’ we can make sunflower more attractive to the grower.”
Sunflower confection processors and breeders alike always come back around with the growers’ best interest in mind. Bigger seed is in demand, but the market won’t sustain itself without the grower—whether it’s plantability, good agronomics or price. Schaefer sums it up best: “If the grower isn’t happy, no one’s happy.”
— Sonia Mullally
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