Your Role and Responsibility in Making the NCDA&CS Cotton Seed Quality Testing Program Work to Your Benefit (Collins, Edmisten, Stewart, Wilson, Snyder, & Williams)

— Written By

Authors: Guy Collins, Keith Edmisten, Sandy Stewart, Phil Wilson, Lori Snyder, & Mitch Williams

As was highlighted and discussed during our Winter County Cotton Meetings, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) Cotton Seed Quality Testing Program was a huge success in 2020, thanks to the leadership of critical people in NCDA&CS, the dedication and stellar effort from our NCDA&CS Inspectors, and the leadership from the NC Cotton Producers Association. Over 600 different seed lots were tested during 2020, and the NCDA&CS 2021 Beekeeping School Cotton Seed Quality Database was accessed over 600 times as well. The primary goals of this program are to provide transparency, so that growers can not only know the quality of the seed they purchase, but also to make better planting decisions during periods of suboptimal planting weather, through the testing by an unbiased 3rd party (NCDA&CS) who follows a stringent national protocol for evaluating both warm and cool germ. The very large majority of seed lots tested in 2020 resulted in very good quality seed, as 97 % of lots tested with a warm germ of 75 % or better, and 87 % of lots tested with a cool germ of 50 % or better. The percentage of seed lots with poor quality seed and/or stop sales issued were very low, however if one of these lots were to end up on your farm, the impact on you could be substantial. Therefore, another goal of this program is to test as many seed lots as possible, and it is to the benefit of all parties involved (especially you, as a grower) to have seed tested by NCDA&CS with test results available before planting begins.

Lessons Learned from 2020: During 2020, most growers did a much better job of sourcing seed quality information (warm and cool germ) from their seed company or dealer prior to planting, compared to years prior. As evidenced by the activity on the NCDA&CS Cotton Seed Quality Database, many growers sought NCDA&CS’s results for warm and cool germ at some point during the season. However, there is room for improvement, which would certainly benefit growers. Our observations during the 2020 planting season suggested that many growers: 1. assumed that all seed lots, including the seed they purchased, would have been tested by NCDA&CS at some point, and therefore they didn’t need to do anything unless they experienced emergence problems, and 2. assumed that NCDA&CS results for warm and cool germ would be the same or similar to the values provided by their seed company or dealer. Both are false assumptions. For the first false assumption, NCDA&CS inspectors are only aware of seed lots that enter NC if that information is provided to them by the seed company or dealer, and in many cases, the inspectors happen to find other seed lots while they are working in a warehouse to collect samples from seed lots from which they were notified. During 2020, there were as many seed lots that NCDA&CS did NOT receive any prior notification of arrival, as there were ones for which they were notified. Additionally, approximately 40 % of the seed lots tested were ones that inspectors found while they were working in a warehouse to collect samples from previously notified seed lots. Therefore, do NOT assume that NCDA&CS knows about your seed lots that you purchased, since this program is completely voluntary and non-mandatory. This requires action to be taken by YOU, as the grower, to ensure that your seed has been tested, which will be discussed later. This also requires additional time if your seed is to be treated downstream, and/or if you want the NCDA&CS test results prior to planting, which is the only way to make appropriate planting decisions. For the second false assumption, in the large majority of cases during 2020, if the seed company values for warm and cool germ were good, NCDA&CS test results agreed. Occasionally, there was a discrepancy, but these are the situations that matter, especially if seed quality is poorer than advertised or labeled. Therefore, do NOT assume that seed company results for warm/cool germ are equal to that of NCDA&CS. We are in NO way suggesting that seed company values for warm and cool germ are misleading or false, but rather the NCDA&CS tests are likely much more recently collected, or at the least, tested closest to planting time and likely more predictive of field performance. Therefore, you need to ensure that the seed you purchase has been tested by NCDA&CS, with results available preferably prior to planting. This also requires action to be taken by YOU.

Official versus Service Samples: There are two types of samples for which cottonseed can be collected and tested by NCDA&CS. Official samples are regulatory samples collected by NCDA&CS Inspectors from multiple bags per a stringent protocol that they must follow, and most importantly from unopened seed bags or containers, prior to any downstream seed treatment. Official samples are the only ones that can be used in seed complaints or arbitration through NCDA&CS if you experience emergence, vigor, or stand establishment problems where seed quality is suspected to be poor or not as advertised. These samples must be collected by NCDA&CS Inspectors, therefore we/you/your consultant/your county agent can NOT collect or submit a sample to be qualified as “Official”. Service samples can be collected by NCDA&CS Inspectors or anyone else besides NCDA&CS Inspectors, and/or are collected from bags/containers that have already been opened or when the seed has already been treated downstream. Once a bag or container seal is opened, the chain of custody is broken or cannot otherwise be established. Service samples still provide the same information as Official (regulatory) samples, which is pertinent information that you need to make adequate planting decisions, but they do NOT hold any merit in seed complaints or arbitration through NCDA&CS if you experience problems. Both types of samples provide equally useful information needed during planting season, but only Official samples can be used in arbitration if quality issues arise or are suspected. It is in your best interest to have an Official sample on file for your seed lots in the NCDA&CS Cotton Seed Quality Database, but a service sample can also provide equally important information for planting decisions. Inspectors must collect samples from multiple bags, therefore you can’t simply leave one bag unopened to suffice for an Official sample through NCDA&CS testing.

Logistics: For things to flow properly and for this badly needed information to be on-hand prior to planting, substantial TIME is needed. In other words, waiting until 2 weeks prior to planting to begin thinking about this, making phone calls, or trying to source this information is FAR too late in the game. Proudly, our NCDA&CS Inspectors and the NCDA&CS Seed Lab are committed to this program and work tirelessly to make it work smoothly for all involved, but they don’t have unlimited resources and they cannot perform miracles either. The warm/cool germs tests require 12 days to be completed. That’s just for the test itself. Now consider the travel time for the inspectors to get to the warehouse where your seed arrives, given the fact that they are getting called to multiple dealers’ warehouses simultaneously from all over the state. Consider the time required for collecting samples per their stringent protocol, the packaging/handling of these samples, the shipment time to the NCDA&CS Seed Lab, the time needed for sorting and preparing these samples, and the space limitations within the germinators, and the time required to evaluate the test results, which are both quantitative and qualitative. Now imagine how all of the NCDA&CS personnel are trying their best to accommodate every cotton grower in NC. Additionally, your dealer needs time to downstream treat your seed prior to planting, if you choose to have your seed treated locally. In short, initiating your responsibilities as a grower in early April is FAR too late.  Your responsibilities are the easiest ones of all, and they should begin NOW.

Your Roles and Responsibilities as a Grower: Yours are the easiest of anyone involved in this program, and it is all designed to benefit you, as the grower. A little effort on your part can go a long way in reaping the value of this program. Below are your responsibilities:

  1. Make sure you are on our newsletter list, or receive our newsletters from your county agent, on social media platforms, or elsewhere. There will be multiple reminders about this program, and in each of the Planting Conditions newsletters, there will be a link to the NCDA&CS Cotton Seed Quality Database. This database can also be found on our NC State Extension Cotton Portal website, under “Calculators and Decision Aids” on the left-side toolbar or directly at the NCDA&CS Cotton Seed Quality Database.
  2. Make your variety decisions reasonably early, and commit to that purchase. The results of the NC On-Farm Cotton Variety Evaluation Program and NC State University OVT were discussed during our winter county cotton meetings, and the recordings of those meetings can be found at Recordings of Winter Cotton Meetings. All variety performance data can also be found in the NCSU Cotton Variety Performance Calculator which can also be found on the NC State Extension Cotton Portal under “Calculators and Decision Aids”. Secondly, decide what proportion of your seed will be treated upstream or downstream, so that subsequent plans can be made with your dealer.
  3. Notify both your seed company representative and your local dealer that you wish to have an Official sample collected by NCDA&CS for all of the seed that you will purchase and that you want the results available prior to when you intend to begin planting. This communication needs to be done NOW, not later, but you will also need to communicate frequently with your dealer or seed company on progress towards this goal from now until planting time. In addition, if your seed is to be treated downstream by your local dealer, they need to know this so that they can plan accordingly as well, and also to ensure that samples are collected by Inspectors before downstream treatment begins. Time is needed to downstream treat seed, so it’s only fair to provide your dealer with ample notice of your wishes. You can request that your dealer contacts NCDA&CS to inform the Inspectors of the arrival of your seed on your behalf, or you can inform the Inspectors yourself. Frequent communication is needed on all sides to avoid any hiccups. Point being….DON’T WAIT, communicate NOW, and frequently from this point forward.
  4. As soon as your dealer can provide this information, or as soon as your seed arrives at your dealer’s warehouse or to your shop, document all pertinent information for each seed lot you purchased. This is as simple as taking a picture of the tag on your seed bags. The most important piece of information is the Lot number. Make sure NCDA&CS knows about it, has collected samples from it, and access the NCDA&CS Cotton Seed Quality Database to view the results. Other important information would include seed size (number of seed per lb), seed treatment, origin, etc.
  5. Access the NCDA&CS Cotton Seed Quality Database and document the results for warm and cool germ for your lot numbers. Use this information in concert with the NCSU Cotton Planting Conditions Calculator to make the best decisions possible. This calculator is also accessible on the NC State Extension Cotton Portal under “Calculators and Decision Aids.”  If the database suggests that your lot number has not yet had a sample collected, contact Brian Bowers at NCDA&CS right away. His number is 919-707-3756 and his email is bowers@ncagr.gov. He will arrange for an inspector to come collect a sample as soon as reasonably possible. (Remember that bags/containers can NOT be opened and the seed can NOT already be treated for it to be considered an Official sample. A Service sample is still possible and necessary if bags have already been opened or if the seed has already been treated downstream). When accessing the NCDA&CS Cotton Seed Quality Database, the first step is to set up your own username and password. This should be done now, but write this information down so that you can remember it and use it later when things become busy during planting. Once you’re logged in, scroll over the Seed Reports” tab across the top toolbar, and in the drop-down menu, choose “Cotton Test Results” (do NOT select “Cotton”). At this point, enter your lot numbers exactly as is printed on the bag. Remember to always use the number “0” if your lot number uses such…do not use the letter “O”. Simply click the blue “Search” button, and the database will list the test results for that lot number, or will indicate whether a sample has been collected and the test is underway, or if the lot number was not found. If your lot number couldn’t be found, contact Brian Bowers as instructed above. If access to technology is a challenge for you, you are welcome to contact your county agent who can assist you in this.

Why is This Important for You?:  It will be really easy to tell how many people read this article to this point, come planting season. Bottom line, if we are called to help you with an emergence, vigor, or stand establishment issue, the first thing we will ask for is the NCDA&CS Cotton Seed Quality Test results. We will help to the best of our ability, but without NCDA&CS test results, there isn’t much we can do. This program brings a great deal of value to producers in many ways. Official samples provide the most value as they can be used in complaints/arbitration, but Service samples also help with planting decisions. In cases where seed quality may be less than ideal but still legal for sale, these test results will only help you if you have the results on hand prior to planting so that you can make the best planting decisions possible. Below are a couple of real-world examples from 2020.

We currently have a relatively new Ph.D. student in the NCSU Cotton Extension Program, Mitch Williams, who’s conducting several research trials, both lab and field experiments, with a primary focus on cottonseed quality. We are working collaboratively with Dr. Lori Snyder, NCSU Seed Specialist, as well on many of these projects, with an ultimate goal of providing a better understanding of cotton seed quality, refining quality testing for improved predictability of field performance, and developing practical tools and procedures for the cotton industry to use for evaluating cotton seed quality. Below are photos and preliminary results of some of Mitch Williams’s field research in 2020 which were shown by Dr. Edmisten in the recent winter county cotton meetings.

Figure 1. Effect of cool germ on seedling vigor during 2020.

Seedlings in field

Figure 2. Effect of cool germ on lint yield during 2020.

Seed quality chart image

Scenario 1. In many cases, we tend to think that seed quality (warm & cool germ) primarily influences stand establishment, but once we achieve a good stand, then we’re good to go. In many years, especially ones with favorable planting weather such as 2019, that may be the case as the small differences in seedling vigor may disappear once cotton reaches the 4-5 leave stage. However, in 2020, that was not the case. Figure 1 illustrates the visual difference in seedling vigor between two lot numbers of the same variety, which were identical in terms of warm germ (87 %, which is considered to be a good warm germ) but were vastly different in terms of cool germ (44 % or poor cool germ on the left, 67 % or good cool germ on the right). Even though planting weather was largely uncooperative during the 2020 season, it’s important to note that these plots were planted at the best available time (May 15th) prior to our first crop insurance cutoff date (May 25th) where the 5-day heat unit accumulation after planting was nearly ideal. This period was followed by a cooler spell, as was much of the 2020 season, but conditions prior to this date were very poor, and rains prevented further planting soon after May 18th, but before the crop insurance cutoff of May 25th. Even though the planting season of 2020 was an anomaly of sorts, it is not uncommon at all to have periods similar to what we experienced in 2020 in most other planting seasons. Figure 1 clearly illustrates a distinct difference in plant vigor between the two seed lots, even though an ideal stand was established with both lots. The differences in plant growth continued well into the season and were even reflected in lint yield as seen in Figure 2. where the lot number with better cool germ resulted in significantly higher yields compared to the lot number with a poor cool germ. This same effect has likely been experienced in NC in other places during 2020, and also in previous years. Had the seed quality of these two lots been known by a grower, we would have advised only planting the lot number with poor cool germ during a period with adequate heat units and favorable forecasts for a longer term. Such weather only occurred in late May or early June during 2020, and planting during that time would have likely resulted in better plant growth with no losses in yield.

Scenario 2. The second real-world scenario also occurred during 2020. Two lot numbers of the same variety arrived to a grower in NC. Lot# 1 had a warm germ of 92 % and a cool germ of 82 %, which is exceptional seed quality. Lot# 2 had a warm germ of 72 % and a cool germ of 42 %. Both were legal for sale in NC, albeit the latter has questionable seed quality that should only be planted in certain situations. Based on this information, Lot# 1 could be planted at essentially anytime during the planting season that was acceptable for planting cotton. Naturally, we would not advise planting cotton of any level of quality when the 5-day forecast predicts little to no heat unit accumulation, and when possible, we should avoid planting when conditions are “marginal” or “adequate”. Depending on a grower’s acreage, the percentage of acres already planted at any given point in time, and the time remaining for planting before crop insurance deadlines, some growers may be forced to plant in less than ideal conditions, such as “marginal” or “adequate” conditions. This is not uncommon for large acreage growers in most years. In the cases with less than ideal conditions in the 5-day forecast, only Lot# 1 should be planted, given that it has a much higher cool germ than Lot# 2. In ideal conditions, such as 50 or more heat units predicted in the 5-day forecast, either Lot# could be planted as cool germ doesn’t matter as much when planting in ideal conditions. However, we would likely advise that the seeding rate for Lot#2 be increased 10-20 % to account for a slightly low warm germ, even in ideal conditions. Lot# 2 should not be planted at all in less than ideal conditions, but both lots are acceptable in ideal conditions assuming seeding rate adjustments are made when planting Lot# 2. In summary, these two lots had very different seed quality, and as such, we’d have very different recommendations as to when and how they should be planted. The hidden secret here is that these two lots were the exact same Lot#.  The warm/cool germ values for Lot# 1 in this illustration were ones provided to the grower by the seed company. The warm/cool germ values for Lot# 2 were ones that NCDA&CS found through their sampling and testing. As mentioned earlier in this article, we are in no way implying that the seed company’s germ values are misleading, but rather we are stating that NCDA&CS’s sampling is conducted much closer to the actual planting date, and their results are likely more predictive of true field performance. Also as mentioned earlier, in the large majority of cases during 2020, seed company values and NCDA&CS values were similar, but the few discrepancies are the ones that matter the most if that seed ends up on your farm.

We encourage all growers and dealers to join our seed companies in taking an active role and participating in this program. The earlier you act, the smoother this program will run. Conversations should start NOW if they haven’t already. Do your part, and reap the rewards of such.