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Farmers should practice safe seed handling

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WORTHINGTON -- With a significant increase in the amount of treated seed being planted, Lizabeth Stahl, University of Minnesota Educator, Crops, wants to stress the importance of safely handling the seed.

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"In the past, when people would plant soybean seed, you didn't worry about what you were wearing," Stahl said. "For example, you could handle it with your bare hands and no big deal. Also, if you had leftover seed, you could just sell it on the market. When seed has been treated, you can't do that. There is no tolerance for treated seed in the food or feed market."

Stahl explained there has been a bigger movement toward treated seed in the past few years.

"Historically, people have been planting soybeans that were never treated with any product," she said. "In recent years, there has been a shift in putting fungicide on the seed that can help with diseases or insecticides that are supposed to help for any insect issues that might occur. There are a number of different pesticides that people have looked at putting on the seed to help ensure your seedling doesn't die, or that something doesn't attack the seedling or plant and hurt yield."

Corn seed has typically been treated, but there has been a rise in treating soybean seed.

"That's been a big shift. Corn seed, for as far as I can remember, has been treated with fungicides because they can protect the seed and seedling from diseases," Stahl said. "We plant corn so early in the year, too, in a cold, often moist environment. It's a great environment to get attacked by seed-attacking insects and diseases. The big shift now is people are looking at treating soybean seeds, too. That just kind of opens up a lot of other issues. Farmers have to remember these treatments are pesticides."

Treated seed can be easily identifiable because of the color put onto it. The existence of one treated seed could ruin an entire shipment.

"If they see a treated seed in a shipment or load, the entire load can be rejected," Stahl said. "That's a big deal. It could be really expensive. If co-ops found somebody who threw treated seed in their wagon, for example, and it got dumped into the bin, you could be buying a lot of (new) seed by contaminating it. That's one big concern. You want to make sure people properly dispose of leftover treated seed."

There are safe ways to dispose of treated seed, including disposal in an approved municipal landfill, use as a fuel source for power plant or kiln or incineration by a waste management facility.

"If you do have leftover seed, the best thing you can do is to plant it out somewhere," Stahl said. "You don't want to plant at a really high rate, though. Some people may think you can just bury it, but you really have to look at the label on the seed to see whether or not this is allowed. You could end up with a really high dose of the seed treatment pesticide in an area and you don't want it getting in the water, either. Planning ahead is really the key and getting only the amount of treated seed that you think you're going to use."

What you don't want to do is to dump the seed in a pile.

"Treated seed can be toxic to mammals and birds, so depending on the product, if eaten they could die," Stahl said. "Seed treatments can be pretty toxic to them. I always worry about pesticide exposure with children, too, because they have a smaller body mass, so they can end up getting a higher concentration of the product in their system versus an adult."

The biggest issue with the seed, Stahl said, is using it in a safe manner.

"When temperatures get warm and you're in a short-sleeved shirt and you're handling this treated seed, don't forget you are working with a pesticide," she said. "Treated seed is labeled, and safe handling instructions will be right on the seed tag label. When I ask producers, most of them haven't really thought to look at the label. But most labels will state that you should be wearing chemically resistant gloves when handling the seed, and other restrictions may be listed. You also want to be careful not to breathe in dust.

"They may think that wearing leather gloves is OK, but it's not. Leather gloves are not chemically resistant, so they will not offer enough protection from pesticide exposure. Leather can soak up pesticide, and you can expose yourself again the next time you put your gloves on."

Seed treatments can also be toxic to bees.

"Some of these are very toxic to bees, and a minute amount could kill a bee and other pollinators. Taking care to reduce dust at planting and to avoid contaminating blooming plants will help protect bees and other pollinators. We need those pollinators.

"The bottom line is we want to do what we can to reduce exposure to non-target living things."

Stahl didn't condone the wide-spread use of treated seed, but noted it was useful at times.

"In a situation where you know you have a disease issue in the field, treated seed would have a higher chance to pay," Stahl said. "I wouldn't say it pays to put it over all your acres, though.

"With corn, it would be risky to not have a fungicide on the seed. But as for blanket use of an insecticide seed treatment, you likely do not need one over all your acres."

At times, a seed treatment can decrease some of the risk.

"There has been a lot of heavy marketing toward people to use treated seed and with crop prices so high, everybody is trying to do what they can to avoid risk," Stahl said. "A lot of time seed treatments are not that much per acre, so they are looked at as 'cheap insurance.' It's no given, though, that they will pay. It is not 'risk-free' to use them, either.

"Ten years ago, no soybean seed was treated, basically. Now it's estimated at least 70 percent will be treated. There's been a real big, dramatic shift in the market. With this shift, safe handling of the treated seed is a big thing."

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