Paying Attention to the Basics for 36 Years

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Mark Kaese (left) is manager and Dan Fehr (right) is assisant manager of the Battle River Seed Cleaning Co-operative.

A good crop starts with good seed, says the manager of Battle River Seed Cleaning Co-operative.

Mark Kaese has been in the seed cleaning business for 36 years, and in that time, he has seen many changes in technology, new seed varieties and products. However, one thing that has never changed, and never will, is the basic fact that a good crop starts with good seed.

“You don’t breed a cattle herd by getting rid of your best cows and bulls,” says Kaese, who is manager at the farmer-owned Battle River Seed Cleaning Co-operative at Paradise Valley, Alta. “It’s the same with seed. You clean your biggest and best seed to put it in the ground because all the inputs in the world won’t grow your crop if the seed isn’t any good.”

It’s by paying attention to the basics and providing the best quality seed that Battle River has stayed in business since 1954, serving its 167 members and other producers in the area.

New Technology

Last year, Battle River bought a new colour sorter to replace its previous monochromatic one, which has allowed the company to provide even better service to its customers.

“The colour sorter has made a tremendous difference, especially to remove ergot out of wheat and things like that, which were hard to get out before,” says Kaese. “It gives us the ability to provide a better product to our customers.”

The new, state-of-the-art true colour sorter has a 14-inch touchscreen and infrared cameras that see true colour differences in the seed and gives improved accuracy and increased flexibility to sort out things like ergot, wild oats, green seed, split peas or any other chosen parameters.

“We can do more things with this sorter because it sees the full spectrum of colour, whereas the old one could only see dark and light,” says technician, Dan Fehr. “For example, if we have wheat going through and some of it is green, we can get rid of the green wheat. Whereas, before, the sorter couldn’t distinguish between the red and green kernels. It fine-tunes the finished product.”

Battle River was one of the original seed cleaning co-operatives in Alberta established as a provincial-federal-community enterprise, and is governed by a board of 10 directors, with four staff who operate the plant. The co-operative has two full-time and two part-time employees who help out in the busy season from December to the end of May, and offers a profit share incentive.

A Six-Step Process

Battle River Seed Cleaning Co-operative is a registered seed establishment approved by the Canadian Seed Institute for pedigreed seed cleaning, and handles around 900,000 bushels of seed a year, a little over half of which is pedigreed seed. It can clean and treat coarse grains, oilseeds and peas using a six-step process.

First, the grain goes through a debearder that removes hulls or beards from grains making it easier to clean.

“It is like a stationary threshing machine,” says Kaese. “There are rub bars in it that rub off the hull and when you put barley through it, it knocks the beards off the ends so it’s easier to clean up.”

The seed then goes though a nine-roll Carter Day Indent machine. “The indent machine has a cylinder with rolls that have different sized indents, so it takes the good heavy seed up and the light chaff and broken seeds fall out of the indent and go into the screenings,” says Kaese.

Next, the seed runs over a 525 Ultrafine Carter Day Air & Screen, which blows away any lighter chaff still remaining and sorts according to seed size.

“There is air going through the machine that pulls off any light material we missed earlier, then it flows over round-holed screens that let grain of a certain size through,” says Kaese. “We size it for the larger material, so if there are stalks or anything, they will go into screenings. The seeds drop onto different-sized, slotted screens, depending on the size of the good grain we want to end up with.”

The next step is the LMC Gravity Table Marc Model 500, which uses specific gravity to move heavy kernels up an inclined shaking screen and discharge them into the colour sorter, which is the final cleaning step.

Seed Treatment has Come a Long Way

Battle River also has a USC 2000 automated seed treater, which offers the option to add a seed treatment before the customer picks the seed up. Kaese says that’s probably one of the biggest changes he’s seen in the business over the past few years.

“The quality of seed treating equipment has come a long way over the past five years or so, and it’s easier to put precisely the right amount of seed treatment on each seed,” he says, adding when he first started in the industry in 1983, there weren’t too many farmers treating seed, and nowhere near as many products available as there are today. That has changed a lot and has been driven by the development of higher yielding varieties.

“Back in the ’80s, if farmers had a 40-bushel wheat crop, they had a bumper crop. Now if they have a 40-bushel wheat crop, they think it’s a crop failure because the yields are up in the 80- to 90-bushel per acre range on average in this area,” says Kaese. “Now, pretty well everybody treats their seed because farming has become a business and farmers want to protect that yield as much as possible.”

Staying Up to Date

Kaese says he sees some changes coming in the next 10 or so years, including the continued release of new hybrids and varieties, but isn’t sure how the adoption of proposed royalties to fund cereal wheat development, which are still under discussion, might affect the industry. However, Kaese strongly believes it’s important for growers to continue to have the ability to clean their own seed.

With other seed cleaning co-operatives close by to the north, south and west, Battle River has always focused on serving its local market well, and to do that they are committed to upgrading to the best and latest equipment as it comes available and staying ahead of industry trends.

“When anything new and better comes along on the market, we look at it and if it’s going to be better than what we have, we install it because we are always striving to be proactive rather than reactive to what the consumer wants,” says Kaese. “Our board always has in mind that our customers are also the owners. We want to operate as cost-effectively as we can, while taking care of what we need to do to be viable and up to date with everything, so we can give something back to them at the end of the day.”

Wetaskiwin Seed and Grain Co-op: Open for Everyone and Everything

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Wetaskiwin Seed and Grain Co-op has been a fixture on the southeast edge of Wetaskiwin since the early 1970s.

When Wetaskiwin area farmers head to town to grab a burger, see a movie or do a little shopping, they have the option to add one extra item to their “get it done in town” list: having their seed cleaned. Wetaskiwin Seed and Grain Co-op (WSGC) has been a fixture on the southeast edge of Wetaskiwin since the early 1970s. Though the city has grown up around it over the past fifty years, WSGC holds true to its small-town charm and know-your-customers-by-name style of service.

What sets WSGC apart? Obviously, the plant’s purely operational benefits draw many farmers, says WSGC’s plant manager, Mike Mullin. “Our location is a bonus being on the edge of Wetaskiwin. We offer seed treating in the spring, which only maybe a third of plants offer. And we distribute multiple varieties of wheat and barley — probably about 10 of wheat and six of barley — so growers have lots of choice.”

A factor that is at least as important, though, is the personal connection and service WSGC offers its customers.

“We’ve been around here for a long time. Farmers know us and trust us, and know we’ll do an excellent job. We try to accommodate everyone as best we can. We’ll get the producers who clean 150 bushels and the producers who clean 15,000. We value all our customers whether they’re big or small,” says Mullin.

WSGC cleans about 450,000 metric tonnes of grain annually. It has the storage capacity to handle approximately 300 metric tonnes of incoming grain and store approximately 600 metric tonnes of clean grain. Yet, a quick calculation of the many white bins standing in WSGC’s bin-yard shows significantly more bin space than WSGC allocates for incoming and stored grain. That’s because WSGC stores and distributes seed for Wetaskiwin Co-op (formerly Parkland Fertilizers) and Nutrien Ag Solutions (formerly Viterra), and also stores seed that is owned and ultimately marketed by individual farmersseed growers.

“We have approximately 1600 metric tonnes of bin space, which includes about 30 bins. Most are owned by Co-op or Nutrien. We don’t sell those seeds; we just distribute it to people who arrange with those companies to buy it.”

Acting as a seed distribution point for just a couple major companies is a real change from the business model a couple decades ago.

“At one time, we probably had 50 bins outside, all belonging to different seed growers. They’d grow their pedigreed seed and sell it through our plant, and then we’d get a commission for handling it. Over the years, it’s gradually got to the point that people wholesale their seed to big companies rather than selling it on their own.”

That shift began in the early 2000s, when Viterra first approached Mullin with the suggestion. For WSGC, it added a new component and revenue stream to their business. For Viterra, it freed up valuable bin space in the spring at their own plants.

“They asked if they could use our plant as a testing ground for seed distribution. It hadn’t been done before that,” says Mullin. “They do it at other plants now, too, but we were the first to prove it would work.”

In order not to be in competition with its own clients, WSGC does not sell any certified seed of its own. It does, however, sell common seed of varieties that are not covered by plant breeder’s rights. On average, WSGC sells approximately 5,000 bushels of barley each year and approximately double that in oats.

WSGC’s geographic pull is large. In addition to drawing many of the 1,300 farms in the Wetaskiwin area, almost 40 per cent of the Co-op’s business comes from Leduc and Nisku. More farmers drive in from the Camrose and Ponoka areas.

The Wetaskiwin area is quite competitive for seed cleaning. Portables do a fair amount of business in the area; Warburg, Camrose, Bashaw, and Ponoka all have plants as well.

“Ultimately, producers have a lot of options. That’s a good thing for farmers,” says Mullin. “The portables have their place. They are a total convenience for the farmer, but they can never do the job that a seed plant can do. There will always be a place for seed plants. Seed plants are here to stay.”

WSGC is here to stay, yes, but perhaps not in exactly the location it occupies now.

“When our plant was built, it wasn’t built with a lot of extra space. Some additions have been put on over the years, but we’re tight for space. Ideally, the next step for us would be to buy some land outside in the country where we could stretch out more.”

While additional space would make managing the plant easier, the existing plant is entirely up-to-date with sorting and cleaning equipment.

“As far as the cleaning goes, you won’t find it done better anywhere else,” says Mullin.

Similar to all 67 other co-operative seed plants across Alberta, WSGC is run by a board of directors. Producers who purchase a share for $250 get $0.10/bushel off the cleaning rate, which means a share is essentially paid off after cleaning 2500 bushels. The co-operative model typically offers growers greater service — private seed cleaning plants typically only clean the limited number of varieties they grow. Co-ops are “open to everyone and everything,” says Mullin. “We’re here for the guys who grow certified seed but we’re also here for those that grow grain for feed or to sell to elevators.”

While Wetaskiwin’s growth has constricted WSGC’s ability to expand at its current location, one new building near the city may directly support the co-op’s continued success: a new 42,000 tonne grain elevator is slated to open later this fall south of Wetaskiwin.

“They are only a couple miles away from us. If people start hauling to that elevator, we may capture some new business if they bring us their grain to clean en route to the elevator.”

Mullin has one key message he wishes all farmers would take to heart: farmers sometimes need to invest a little to make a lot. His is a two-part investment recommendation.

First, update your seed, preferably every two to three years.

“You need to keep your seed fresh, so to speak. Older seed loses vitality and vigour. Yes, older seed will grow but if you add any stress — disease, cold, drought or moisture, or pests — you’ll see a visible difference in growth and yield,” he says. “Seed is your cheapest input. It’s not the place to try to save a few dollars.”

Second, virtually every farmer should be treating their seeds every year.

“I’d recommend it for every seed that goes in the ground. It’s very cheap insurance,” he says. “If you have wet falls like we’ve had the past few years, you definitely need to treat your seed in the spring because there is so much disease and bacteria that will be in your seed. But even after a dry fall, you want to treat your seed to hold off diseases that will attack your seed while it’s trying to grow, especially if it’s a cool, slow spring.”

Mullin has committed almost 25 years to WSGC so far. He says he’s got at least a few more still in him.

“I’m a born and raised country boy. Agriculture is my life. Ag is looked down on because it’s not always as dynamic or exciting as other industries. The money isn’t as good as the oil patch. But you know what? The farming industry in Alberta is a constant. Every year, it’s there. In a good year, a bad year, it’s still there. That’s why I’m still here. I believe in this industry and the farmers who make it happen.”

The Taber Seed Cleaning Co-op: Staying Ahead of Demand

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In addition to 30,000 bushels of storage, the new Grassy Lake plant has increased the co-op’s total processing volume by one-third.

After doubling Taber Seed Cleaning Co-op’s seed processing capacity five years ago at its Fincastle location, Joe Hanson, the plant’s manager, thought he’d never need more.

“Never say never,” he laughs. “At the time, I thought, ‘we’re never, ever going to need to increase capacity again.’”

Only four short years later the plant at Fincastle couldn’t keep up with the demand for its services, so the co-op’s association was faced with a tough decision — up capacity or turn customers away. However, Hanson had taken the Fincastle plant as far as it could go, and turning customers away wasn’t an option either, he says. When he proposed building a second facility, the association board needed a little convincing.

“When I first brought up building a new plant in Grassy Lake, they all looked at me like I was crazy. The problem was, if we didn’t keep our customers happy, somebody else would. If customers started going elsewhere with part of their crop, what’s to say they wouldn’t do that for all of it. That was my rationale. We needed to do something.”

It took 13 months to build the new Taber Seed Cleaning Co-op Grassy Lake, which opened its doors last September. Hanson says running the two facilities, which are located 25 kilometers apart, keeps him on his toes. He says the plants work together to service the producers in the area.

In addition to 30,000 bushels of storage, the new plant has increased the co-op’s total processing volume by one-third at 600 bushels per hour. The Fincastle plant has two lines each capable of cleaning 600 bushels an hour; the combined cleaning capacity of the two plants is up to 1,800 bushels of wheat per hour.

State-of-the-art equipment also went into the Grassy Lake plant including an aspirator, an easy-to-clean indent, a destoner, and an upgraded colour sorter which can recognize shapes and sort hulled and non-hulled products. The equipment will step up the plant’s game when it comes to cleaning and separating seed.

The Grassy Lake facility also has a mobile seed treater, so seed can be processed outside. The treater has also increased growers’ ease as it can be pulled up to a grower’s bin where seed can be treated right from the bin and onto the grower’s truck. Hanson is currently organizing the installation of seed growers’ storage bins at the new plant. “It’s so much more convenient for them,” he says.

Increased Demand

There were several reasons for the increased demand of the co-op’s services, but one of the biggest factors was the area’s pedigreed seed production. Pedigreed seed cleaning accounts for 30 to 50 per cent of the business or up to 800,000 bushels, depending on the year.

Part of the reasoning behind opening the second location was to provide local pedigreed seed growers — who produce wheat, hemp, coriander, barley, peas, chickpeas and triticale — easier access to services.

“Our Grassy Lake facility is a little closer to some of our pedigreed seed growers. They’re not travelling as far to get to us, so that helps them out. Without pedigreed seed growers, we wouldn’t have the need for a new plant,” says Hanson. “We’re thankful they put their trust in us.”

Hanson focuses on quality of life to retain his employees. From left to right: Taber Seed Cleaning Co-op’s team members Peter, Joe and Jacob.

Hanson believes demand for pedigreed seed will continue to increase, especially once hybrid wheat becomes a reality for western Canadian farmers.

“In time, we’re going to see more hybrid cereals, which will have to be pedigreed seed. As soon as hybrid wheat is released, it’ll be a pedigreed status,” says Hanson.

In addition to pedigreed seed, as a certified organic facility, the Grassy Lake plant also processes organic crops. Other specialty crops the new facility processes are coriander, dill, caraway and hemp. Hanson believes the demand for specialty crops, including pedigreed seed, will continue to increase.

To carry out the clean-up between pedigreed crops, or those headed for organic or human consumption markets, it can take from six to eight hours. “Changeovers are a fact of life, but I’ve got a pretty good crew. It takes a little time, but that’s how you keep the seed pure,” says Hanson.

Hemp companies have also played a large role in the co-op’s growth and success. It all started with one hemp grower who saw Hanson’s ad claiming: “You grow it; we clean it.”

And he stands by that motto: it doesn’t matter what the crop is, Hanson says he’ll figure out a way to clean it. “Without the hemp growers in our area, we wouldn’t have the need [for a second plant].” That hemp grower also brought him some dill and coriander to clean.

“As with any business, if you stop growing, you stagnate. If the need is there, you must fulfil it,” he says.

Another reason Hanson pushed for a second facility also addressed a challenge many businesses are facing in the industry. Attracting and retaining qualified labour continues to be an obstacle many in the sector must overcome. Hanson focuses on quality of life to retain his employees, which has created for him a loyal, lasting team.

“I don’t believe in running [the plants] 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you can keep your employees happy, it makes it simpler for everybody,” he says.

Although Hanson runs a tight ship, he maintains keeping good people is essential to the plants’ success, and he does this by making sure his workers get time to themselves and their families on weekends and evenings. However, for a few weeks during the spring, it’s all hands on deck. “Without our staff, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” he says.

With the new plant up and running, Hanson can focus his attention on the future — which he thinks looks pretty good. “For farming, as a whole, there’s a bright future there. In our area, many crops are irrigated. The crops we can grow will amaze you. More new crops are going to be introduced, and they’re not going to be the typical wheat and barley,” says Hanson.

“Irrigated land in our area is selling for one to two million dollars a quarter. You can’t grow wheat and barley and pay for that. I think there are going to be some big changes ahead and more diverse crops.”

Hanson says now that the Grassy Lake plant has boosted seed processing capacity in the area, there’s no way they will need to expand.

Never say never.