Technology drives innovation. In the grain industry, this adage can be applied to everything from automation to invoicing. Notably, post-harvest grain quality measurement technology has proven to be a critical, ever-evolving tool for the industry. Quick and accurate mycotoxin testing has improved feed safety and blending techniques; however, they are limited in their ability to provide a snapshot of quality attributes at an individual kernel level.
Analyzing singular kernels could be the key to developing higher-quality grain varieties. Identifying the moisture, protein and oil content of a single seed gives breeders and geneticists the tools needed for the development of optimal-quality grains.
Although today there are few applications suitable for commercial grain handling facilities, single-seed analyzers may someday be used to detect mycotoxins and test seed variability within a sample. As the precision, accuracy and speed of these instruments improve, they may become commonplace in grain handling and processing facilities across the nation.
Feed & Grain spoke with the developers of these instruments and some of the foremost leaders in grain science to understand the impact single-seed analyzers may have on the industry, as well as up-and-coming bulk grain conditioning technologies.
Quality starts with the seed
Universities and USDA-ARS (Agricultural Research Service) labs across the country spend a significant amount of time and financial resources researching optimal ways to maintain grain quality. Their work has led to many of the best management practices used today with regard to aeration, drying, handling and pest control. But Floyd Dowell, agricultural engineer, USDA-ARS in Manhattan, KS, notes that grain quality management shouldn’t begin post-harvest, but rather before the crop is even planted.
“A lot of our efforts have focused on cleaning up harvested grain and testing for defects to ensure feed and food quality and safety,” says Dowell. “But instead, if we spend more time focusing on breeding for quality characteristics, we won’t have to clean them up later because we’ve done a better job ensuring a safe, wholesome supply.”
Tom Pearson, an agricultural engineer at the USDA-ARS lab in Manhattan, has developed a high-speed single-seed analyzer that captures color images of individual kernels and sorts them into either the accepted process stream or diverts them out based on visual characteristics.
The instrument uses a pattern recognition routine that matches visual characteristics of the kernels as they come off the chute to sort them into piles. Breeders can use the sorting application for several purposes, including diverting weed seeds away from grain seeds, resulting in less foreign material upon harvesting.
“Using image analysis to sort grain can be used not only to increase quality, but to increase value,” says Pearson. “For example, when creating wheat foundation seed, red and white wheat must be sorted to purify it; otherwise you end up with wheat of different classes, lowering its value. In the case of flax, you separate yellow from brown flax, or purify the yellow flax, which increases its value.”
Paul Armstrong, agricultural engineer, Engineering and Wind Erosion Research Unit of USDA-ARS, is the developer of a single-seed Near Infrared (NIR) instrument for the rapid composition measurement of corn, soybeans and other large seeds.
Seed breeders at Iowa State University, the University of Florida and the University of Kentucky are using the instruments to enhance their breeding and genetics programs.
“It uses the same general operating principle used in bulk NIR instruments, except at a single-seed level,” says Charles Hurburgh, professor, department of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State Universtiy. “The seed passes down a short LIGHT tube that is illuminated around the sides with NIR light, and there are detectors at the ends of the tube, measuring the amount reflected off of the seed.”