Becker-Underwood has been in the inoculants business for some time, and its success hasn't been missed. In fact, the company was acquired by BASF late in 2012 and is the core of a new Functional Crop Care Unit , which includes research, development and marketing activities in the seed treatment, biological crop protection and plant health segments.
Farm Industry News took a tour of the St. Joseph, Mo., Becker Underwood facility to see how inoculants are produced. The company makes a wide range of products, including the soybean inoculant Vault HP plus Integral. The product includes the rhizobial inoculant, a patented growth enhancer and Integral biofungicide in a single package.
This photo gallery takes a look at the steps involved in producing a core product - the rhizobial inoculant. This is a living product and Becker Underwood holds to production standards required in other countries. Interestingly, the United States has very little regulation of rhizobial inoculant products - including what's actually on the seed at planting. However, Canada has a much stricter program, and that's the one Becker Underwood follows.
Chris Feiden , operations manager, Becker Underwood, led a tour for media through the St. Joseph, Mo., facility showing the process. All along the way, he also noted the quality control steps involved in the process, from tracking purity to managing growth.
The inoculant business is competitive and farmers are seeing the potential for this kind of addition at planting to boost yield potential. In fact, the drought of 2012 may have caused a reduction of beneficial Bradyrhizobium japonicum, the chief nodule-building rhizobia, population in the soil ahead of the 2013 crop year. Ohio State University and other experts are suggesting that farmers should consider using inoculant with soybeans for this crop year.
It is that rhizobial inoculum in the soil, through a unique symbiotic relationship, that helps soybeans add those nitrogen-filled nodules on roots. Boosting rhizobial levels by adding inoculant can offer as much as an 11 to 1 return on your investment versus no treatment, according to Becker Underwood.
Check out the gallery and note that from a single vial of inoculum comes a season's worth of product for Becker Underwood to market.
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1. A HUMBLE START
The first step for production of a liquid inoculant is from a refrigerator. Becker Underwood's first step is from a test tube kept in that refrigerator. Chris Feiden, operations manager, explains that USDA is a source of that incolum and from there the company can create its products. But it all starts from a test tube.
2. SMALL BUT POTENT
This vial of inoculum is where Becker Underwood begins the process of creating product. Rhizobial inoculant is a living product and the chief way to "make" it is to "grow" it in a fermentation process. This test tube is where the base product is stored.
3. FROM TUBE TO BEAKER
Inoculant from that test-tube goes into beakers and is tested along the way. Chris Feiden explains that moving the product to the beaker is the initial step toward growing a new batch. Becker Underwood makes each season's inoculum for use in that crop year. This is part of the company's culture, to have "fresh" product every season. They will take back expired product after the planting season to keep what's available fresh.
4. SHAKE, RATTLE AND ROLL?
Feiden explains that the beakers of inoculant are placed in an environment where they can grow. In this case it's that box in the center - which is on a shaker table (hard to show in a picture) that moves constantly to aerate the beakers to promote growth. The larger bottle to the left is a next-step location where inoculant continues to grow. "We shake the beakers for about a week to promote growth," Feiden says. He adds that some strains will grow faster - for example, for lentils, the required inoculant is ready in just three days to move to a bigger tank.
5. CONSTANT TESTING
Samples from beakers are taken and grown to test for potency. Quality control is continuously part of the process at the company. Note in the background the stack of test dishes used as part of the process. Feiden says that Becker Underwood holds itself to the Canadian standard of potency, which is far stricter than any rules available in the United States. In fact, there is little regulation of inoculants in the United States for either potency or population on the seed.
6. BAGS TESTED
This image is a little out of order, but shows that the company is also testing packaging regularly too. This table full of inoculant bags is where the company makes sure that the product is protected as required, and that the bags are holding up.
7. INTO PRODUCTION
Feiden explains that after the beakers have seen adequate growth, material starts moving into bigger tanks. First stop is a 200-liter (about a 440-gallon) tank (just behind him) where the fermentation process starts. "People ask why we don't just go right to the big tank," he says. "The inoculum would not survive in that environment. It would be like putting a person in a desert with no other support." Gradual steps to growth work best.
Eventually, inoculant does grow and move enough until it's being fermented in larger tanks. Feiden stands in the "big tank" room where 20,000-liter tanks are finishing the growth of inoculant. In fact, the tank at the back of the room is a 30,000-liter - or about 66,000 gallons.
9. TRULY BIG
Here's a label for one of the larger fermenter tanks that shows its capacity. And yes, if you stand back it does look like a brewery. Feiden notes that their equipment is made by the same companies that make gear for brewing beer. This process is very critical and can't stop until finished, which means Becker Underwood has to have back-up power or the fermentation "train" can wreck. Feiden says they have back-up power that'll go on line with 3 seconds of losing power and can run three days before it needs to be refueled. "That way I can sleep at night," he notes.
10. BAGGED AND READY
Bagging inoculants is a big deal at Becker Underwood. The bags used for Vault HP for instance can actually "breathe" to allow the living organisms to thrive in transport before they end up on seed and back into the soil. The conveyor belt here leads back to a high-end white room where the inoculant is packaged (no visitors allowed). The bags come out and drop into the bin where Feiden says leak testing is automatic. "We can catch the problem of a leaking bag before it goes to packaging," he notes.
11. READY TO PACK
Chris Feiden explains the packing process where two bottles of Integral biofungicide go into the box first, then two bags of the patented Growth Enhancer (separated by cardboard layers) and finally two bags of inoculant (also separated by cardboard layers). A box this size is the 2 x 200 unit size - treating 400 units or 20,000 lbs. of soybean seed. Other packaging sizes are available.
12. FRESHNESS DATING
Holding itself to a specific standard also means making sure the product is fresh. For Becker Underwood every case has a freshness stamp, which in this case means the product will last for a single planting season. The company has a minimum guaranteed count of 10 billion colony forming units (CFUs) of advanced rhizobia per milliliter through that expiration date.</p>
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