North Carolina Cotton: Pilot Program Offers Seed Quality Testing

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By now, most folks are aware of the seed quality issues that occurred during 2019, when a few lot numbers of a couple of varieties were planted in relatively good planting conditions, and poor stands resulted. This issue was magnified by dry weather later in the planting window and the use of some residual herbicides in no-till situations that prevented replanting before the end of our planting window.

Further investigation into this issue revealed that seed quality was questionable for those affected lot numbers. The 2019 issue was largely handled by the seed company involved working directly with the growers that were affected.

However, subsequent additional investigations into previous years’ seed quality revealed an alarming trend with both warm and cool germination values of primarily random samples collected of varieties from several different seed companies.

Dating back to 2012, there have been several instances of questionable to very poor seed quality (both warm and cool germ), involving multiple cotton seed brands and varieties, although there was a clear downward trend in seed quality especially over the last three years.

Moving Forward

Our leadership organizations began dialogues to develop a plan to address this issue with seed quality, and as a result, NCDA&CS has recently launched a first-ever Pilot Program for Cotton Seed Quality Testing beginning in the 2020 season.

Currently, this program is a cooperative effort between the seed companies and NCDA & CS, is voluntary, and to date, seed companies are in compliance. The ultimate goal of this program is to improve transparency for growers regarding seed quality with intentions to collect samples from, and provide 3rd-party seed quality testing (by the NCDA&CS Seed Lab), for all cotton seed lots sold and planted in NC.

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As part of this voluntary Pilot Program, seed companies agree to notify NCDA&CS Plant Industry Division  prior to  arrival of any of their brand’s seed lots into NC, and provide NCDA inspectors with the variety name, lot #, origin, point of arrival, etc. Prior to any downstream seed treatment, further distribution, sale, or planting of seed, NCDA inspectors will collect samples (per their protocol) for testing of warm and cool germ.

These tests require approximately 12 days to complete, therefore, once a sample is collected by NCDA inspectors, the seed can then proceed with downstream seed treatment, distribution, sale, planting, etc. without the germ tests being completed.

As a result of this program, there should be Official test results on file for most (with intentions of capturing ALL) seed lots planted in NC, and this information will be provided for public access via a NCDA&CS database. This database will be updated nightly, as seed quality tests are concluded, therefore growers will be able to access this information in real time.

This program should allow for more timely responses in assessing seed complaints, issuance of stop sales if needed, potentially improved planting decisions for growers (if seed arrives early enough in the spring for this information to be available prior to planting season), and improved transparency and protection for both growers and seed companies who provide high quality seed to our market.

What Growers Can Do

Growers should take a proactive approach and be involved in this Pilot Program. Given the time required for seed quality testing to be completed, seed that arrives hurriedly into NC after planting season begins will not likely allow for test results to be available prior to planting. If both seed quality and planting conditions are good, this may not be a problem for anyone.

However, planting season in NC often brings less than ideal planting conditions at some point or another, and it is very important for growers to know the quality of the seed they purchased in order to make the best planting decisions possible. For instance, a lot number with good warm germ and low cool germ should be planted only in excellent planting conditions.

Growers should plant a lot number with good or acceptable cool germ during marginal planting conditions, and adjust seeding rates accordingly especially if seed is small, while avoiding planting of low cool germ seed during these periods. The only way to make these decisions is to have warm and cool germ test results on hand before planting.

If the grower wants this information to be available before they plant, they should order seed as early as reasonably possible and commit to that purchase the best they can.

Additionally, they should communicate their wishes regarding seed arrival date within reason, upstream vs downstream seed treatment, and their wishes for NCDA testing to be concluded before planting directly to their seed dealer AND the seed company.

Using those test results, growers should then utilize the Cotton Planting Conditions Calculator to make the best planting decisions possible.

Regardless of the scenario, growers should document and record every lot number of seed they purchase, as well as warm/cool germ, the origin, seed treatment, where it was treated, etc. The seed company’s value for warm germ is printed on the bag, however cool germ is not printed on the bag but can generally be accessed by calling the seed dealer or seed company representative.

Growers should then check the NCDA&CS seed quality database frequently throughout the planting season, as it will be updated daily with test results and lot numbers with quality tests underway at that time, and record the NCDA&CS test results as well.

We will be providing the link for growers to access the NCDA & CS Cotton Germination Database in our Planting Conditions newsletters throughout the planting season, so growers should ensure that they are receiving our newsletters via our email list, their county agent’s email list, social media, or by going directly to our NCSU Cotton Portal website.

Users should first bookmark the link to the database, and will need to register a username and password before entering the database. Once inside the database, users can enter their variety name and lot number. The first 4 letters in the lot number will pull up results but it is recommended to enter the complete lot number.

Users can also just simply enter the lot number and the results will appear if that lot has been sampled and tested.

In cases where growers have received their seed, and their lot number is not listed in NCDA’s database (not in queue for testing, testing not in progress, or no seed quality tests concluded), growers should contact Brian Bowers (brian.bowers@ncagr.gov, 919-707-3756) at NCDA&CS, and he will notify local seed inspectors to collect a sample for you as soon as reasonably possible.

It’s important to note that NCDA&CS Official Sampling of seed quality requires that seed bags or containers to remain unopened, and the inspectors must be the first to open the bag/container to collect the sample. If the bag or container has been opened or downstream seed treated prior to collection of samples by the NCDA inspector, the seed quality test results are simply available for the grower’s knowledge and hold no bearing if problems or seed complaints arise.

Therefore, growers should not attempt to collect samples themselves, nor can your extension agent or consultant collect one, unless the grower simply wants this information for their own knowledge.

If problems arise where seed quality is in question, growers should contact the seed company, their county agent, extension specialist, and/or NCDA&CS as soon as possible, so that the issue can be addressed with the most precision and in a timely manner. It becomes very difficult to evaluate field problems after a lot of time has elapsed (even a couple of weeks).

The first and most important step in this process is for all cotton growers to make sure they are receiving these newsletters. To be on our newsletter list, please contact your local county extension agent, or email Guy_Collins@ncsu.edu to be added to the Cotton Extension email list for our newsletters.

If you think you are currently on the newsletter email list but haven’t received our newsletters in several months, you should be sure we have the correct email address for your, and/or check your junk folder or spam filter.




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