technician in Beck's greenhouse
ONLY A FEW: Beck’s greenhouse technicians pick a few plants out of each tray that have the proper genetic match after trait conversion to go to the next step in the process. The young plants will be planted in plots and will produce ears like the corn in the background.

Growing corn inside speeds breeding process

New lighting system in greenhouses better meets plants’ needs, increases efficiency and cuts costs.

The 10 greenhouses at Beck’s near Atlanta, Ind., are devoted primarily to one purpose: inserting traits the company’s plant breeders want into germplasm under development to become the new hybrids of the future.

“It takes four to six backcrosses to get similar genetics with the traits inserted to what we had before,” says Ben Orebaugh, manager of the trait conversion process.

They can produce roughly three to four crops per year in the greenhouses, while the best they could get outside was one in North America and one in Hawaii each year. Therefore, they’re shaving at least one year off the trait conversion process.

“Plant breeders tell us what traits they want in the new germplasm they’re developing,” Orebaugh says. “We make the initial cross to insert it, then test resulting seedlings to find the few that have the right level of trait and genetics closest to the original parent. Only a very few make the cut.

“The next step is growing them out, making backcrosses and continuing the process until we have what we need.”

Add efficiency
Leonard Hartman, a reader from Kokomo, Ind., sent these thoughts in reaction to recent articles about climate change and carbon dioxide levels. “Where is the research being carried out to discover the plant’s molecular mechanics for capturing sunlight, rainwater and CO2, and making sugars, starches and oils?” he asks.

“With the computer online access to unlimited information, surely there is someone who knows what questions to ask to learn how man can duplicate plant’s solar energy capture.

“Where are the visionaries? Can’t the reader see mankind has so much more to gain here than from self-driving cars?”

Maybe Orebaugh and Beck’s aren’t addressing all of Hartman’s thought-provoking questions, but they have zeroed in on providing better light for plants in their greenhouses. They’re making the investment in LED lights.

“The [LED] light is more in the spectrum that plants capture in real life from solar energy,” Orebaugh explains. “It does several things for us. Plants grow shorter instead of getting super tall under the older sodium lights. It makes the breeding process better because we get a more accurate phenotype.          

“The lights are also much more efficient, quieter and not as hot. The sodium lights generate a lot of heat on their own. We try to control the greenhouses at 85 degrees F in the day and around 74 at night to mimic real-world conditions. It’s easier with these new lights.”

Orebaugh believes they have a system that is efficient, but they’re always looking to make it more efficient. They welcome comments such as those from Hartman, which challenge them to look for ways to improve utilization of ingredients to make corn more efficiently.

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