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Why this seed company continues investing in greenhouses

Corn plants growing in buckets in greenhouse.
HEAD START: Using greenhouses allows the corn breeding program at Beck’s to get a head start on the growing season. In fact, Beck’s researchers can grow corn in Indiana every day of the year.
Wouldn’t a company that produces seed corn to grow in the field need more field space, not greenhouse space? Beck’s research director explains the company’s latest investment.

Visitors to Beck’s home location near Atlanta, Ind., may do a double-take when looking over the facility in the near future. For years there have been eight greenhouses attached to what Beck’s calls its biotechnology building.

Very soon there will be 10 greenhouses there instead of eight. Work is already underway to add two more.

Why so many greenhouses? It was one of the questions Kevin Cavanaugh, director of research for Beck’s, answered in this exclusive interview with Indiana Prairie Farmer. He also discussed the company’s approach to plant breeding and the seed business in the future.

You already have eight greenhouses. Why are you adding two more? We are looking to continue to grow, and we need more space. Each of the two new greenhouses will contain about 4,000 square feet of usable space.

Why are these greenhouses so important to your program? We can grow roughly three corn crops per year in the greenhouse. We use them for different purposes. However, the primary use is to introduce traits into our breeding material once we know it is a good candidate to be a new product in our lineup. We can control the growing conditions — including temperature, moisture levels and lights — so we can make efficient use of our resources by utilizing them. Also, we can plant and harvest every day of the year, and the environment is perfect for growing corn.

Why do you need so much space if the main goal is inserting traits? We conduct an actual corn breeding program. We have five corn breeders with doctorate degrees, each operating their own separate corn breeding program. One of [the programs] is mature, meaning there should be a good flow of products coming through that pipeline in the near future. The others are still under development but will mature soon.

Our goal is to give farmers as many choices as possible. We are not trying to develop and produce enough inbreds so that everything in our lineup is exclusive. Instead, we want to be able to source seed from the best genetic providers in the industry, and produce the best possible combinations.

You have mentioned before that you collaborate with some small biotech companies here at Beck’s. What is that about? It’s kind of like an incubator for companies and products. We rent some greenhouse space and lab space to a few smaller, select companies who are working on special projects related to corn breeding. It provides them economical space, and gives us a chance to keep up on the latest developments in their various areas.

What are some of those developments that are underway now? Some of these companies and their research efforts are aimed at advancing yield genes. There are primarily three genes that we classify in that category which we are testing. One is related to increasing kernel size, which should produce more yield. The other two are connected to photosynthesis and improving the efficiency of that process. Photosynthesis is key to producing corn efficiently. We believe we will see synergies coming out of these efforts in the future.

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