Becker Underwood: A Quiet Confidence
With little industry fanfare, Becker Underwood has continued to expand its market scope by focusing on several key ag sectors and adapting to new market changes as they arise.
October 6, 2010
For some in the agricultural community, Becker Underwood, Inc. of Ames, IA, is fairly well known. After all, the company has been around for almost 30 years, providing several different products to enhance a multitude of ag production practices, particularly in the seed sector.
Despite this fact, there is still a sizable portion of the marketplace that doesn't fully appreciate just how ingrained into agriculture Becker Underwood really is. "When I tell someone I work for Becker Underwood, they usually don't know what that means," says Russ Berndt, product manager, inoculants. "But as a company, we touch so many things. When I explain how products such as our inoculants are used to bring benefits to the world's growers, people start to understand just how many layers there are to what Becker Underwood does."
Sticking with the layers concept, Berndt calls to mind a scene from the movie "Shrek," when the main character compares his personality traits to the layers of an onion. However, Berndt prefers to think of Becker Underwood's layers as more mineral than vegetable. "If I had to pick one word that best describes our company, it would be geode," he says. "On the outside, a geode looks just like an ordinary rock. But when you break it open and look inside, you find many multi-faceted crystals that make it quite unique."
And the layers do stretch across many fields. Besides inoculants, Becker Underwood provides colorants, seed coatings and beneficial nematodes for agriculture. The company also conducts business in the landscape, horticultural and turf markets.
According to Dr. Peter Innes, CEO, part of the reason Becker Underwood has taken this layered approach is simply good business, dictated by the marketplace itself. "Things move very quickly in our industry when it comes to technological advances, and we have to be adaptive as a result," says Innes. "It's generally accepted that technological innovations double in scope and ability every 14 months or so. For a company like ours to survive in this kind of environment, we have to be able to recognize these advances as they appear and adapt accordingly."
Joe Lara, product manager, horticulture and specialties, echoes these views. "The products we create have to work, and work well," says Lara. "They can't just seem to work."
In truth, this characteristic of Becker Underwood goes back to its founding in 1982. At that time, glyphosate herbicide — which had been introduced a few years earlier under the tradename Roundup — was taking the agricultural market by storm. Company founders Roger Underwood and Jeff Becker had the idea to use this chemistry as a base for a new product — a colorant that could be added to the glyphosate for users to better determine the spot spray pattern. Seed coloring and coating were added to the company's product offerings a few years later.
During the early 2000s, Becker Underwood began a series of acquisitions, which expanded the company's reach beyond the U.S. and brought biologicals into the product portfolio. Today, Becker Underwood has offices in several countries around the globe, including France, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom, with annual sales in the $150 million range.
Innes believes these recently added layers to Becker Underwood's company make-up will be key to future growth. "The decisions to take the company international and move into biologicals will become more important going forward," he says. "Biologicals will be very important to feeding a world population which is expected to hit more than nine billion in the next few decades when we have a finite amount of land and water to work with. So we have to examine every way possible to increase productivity."
This is an area where the development of biologicals could play a big part, he adds. On average, a teaspoon of soil contains approximately five billion organisms, each with its own set of needs. "So when a grower puts a seed in the ground, there are all these organisms in there as well," says Innes. "Basically, these fall into three different categories as far as the seed is concerned: Those that can help the seed grow, those that will harm it and those that couldn't care less how the seed does because it doesn't affect them either way. Our job is to find the beneficial organisms in this mix and develop the ones that are commercially viable for helping the seed along."
For many years, the primary focus in biologicals for agriculture has focused on a single organism, rhizobia, and its ability to help legume crops to establish root nodules and supply nitrogen to the growing plant. Attempts to use other biologicals haven't always proven as successful, however. In fact, this traditionally has been the Achilles heel for biologicals," says Innes. "Individually, any single biological typically doesn't have a great spectrum of activity."
But Becker Underwood is addressing this limitation with its BioStacked initiative. "With this effort, we are finding combinations of biologicals that can work in concert to help the crops," Innes adds.
Becker Underwood first introduced this concept to ag with its Vault inoculant product in 2005. In 2010, the company launched Vault HP, which combines rhizobia with a rhizobia-stimulating plant-derived biological compound and a disease-inhibiting bacteria. This last component inhibits the growth of disease-causing pathogens such as fusarium and rhizoctonia.
"We've combined the BioStacked biological components with patent-pending packaging materials and a new rhizobia production method," notes Eda Reinot, global head, research & development for Becker Underwood. "As a result, we are achieving on-seed survival of 60-plus days for the rhizobial inoculant component and at least 240 days of viability for the product's growth enhancer and biofungicide technologies."
Eventually, she adds, this can open the door for Becker Underwood to offer biologicals to its customers with specific traits for their needs. "You could take a library of biologicals and tailor them on a custom basis," says Reinot.
Of course, none of these involve genetic modification, which has never been a part of Becker Underwood's product line, says Innes. "Nature always provides a solution to crop diseases and predators," he says. "Becker Underwood just focuses on finding these nature solutions and developing them to help agriculture protect its plants."
Along these lines, Reinot adds that Becker Underwood's biologicals are not meant to serve as replacements for the use of crop protection products. "Our products offer users a different mode of action to crop chemicals," she says. "What we are offering provides a complementary mode of action for these crops, and might also help address resistance problems."
The Flo Rite Way
In addition to the BioStacked initiative, one of the other new developments from Becker Underwood involves plantability polymers. According to Stephanie Zumbach, product manager, seed enhancements, growers like the benefits offered by seed treatments, but hate that this same process can sometimes cause seeds to clump together or not plant properly. "Basically in seed treatment, we are trying to stick stuff onto the seed surface," says Zumbach. "But then at the same time, we are trying to keep these same seeds from sticking together once they are treated."
As a solution to this paradox, Becker Underwood has introduced its Flo Rite technology. There are currently two options for the corn seed market: original Flo Rite 1085 and Flo Rite 1197, which was introduced last year as a Flo Rite 1085 replacement with lower use rate, faster drydown and better dust suppression. Flo Rite 1127 Concentrate also is available for legume crops. In all instances, the Flo Rite plantability polymer is applied to the seed simultaneously with active seed treatment components and color coating.
According to Zumbach, the Flo Rite products can be mixed directly in the slurry tank, meaning multiple pumps, polymers and applications are not required. And the products offer the user improved plantability, less accumulation of materials on seed transport surfaces and improved dust suppression. "Neither seed conditioners nor producers like dust or flowability issues," she says. "They know that both issues represent lost protection for the seed as well as lost time and money."
In addition to being a time-saver, plantability polymers can help protect seed from extreme weather. "In today's ag market, seed is getting sown earlier and earlier every season," says Zumbach. "This means some of the soil it is going into could still be very cold, which could cause tissue damage.
"Polymer technology allows the rate of water uptake into the seed to be slowed down — not enough to effect germination, but enough to allow the seed to acclimate to the cold conditions," she continues.
With a host of product offerings at its disposal, Becker Underwood is beginning to speak up about its positive message across many channels. To its customers, the company is promoting the fact that it adheres to its own set of strict quality standards when it comes to inoculants.
"The U.S. has no regulated minimum standard for guaranteed live rhizobia on seed, for example, so any company can make virtually any claims it wants in this area," says Berndt. "But at Becker Underwood, we've chosen to apply the same set of standards to our U.S. inoculants as is required to meet standards established by the Canadian agricultural ministry. On soybeans, this means our days-on-seed survival ratings are based upon providing a minimum 100,000 colony-forming units of rhizobia per seed. Any lower number is considered a failure even when rhizobia are still present.
Then there's the distribution channel. According to Charlie Hale, marketing strategies & support lead, U.S., Becker Underwood gets its products to market using many different distribution methods. In the horticultural and turf industry, products move exclusively through distributors. For seed enhancements, the company works directly with large seed producers and serves some smaller companies through the network of distributors who also represent the company's inoculant products in the marketplace.
"For years, ag retailers have been becoming more and more important in their role as trusted advisors to what growers ultimately put into the ground," says Hale. "At Becker Underwood, we are actively working with this group instead of focusing on the grower. We have a role to play — helping to educate our partners to get our positive message through the retail chain."
Finally, there's communicating with the general population, although not quite in a direct manner. "The general public is becoming more aware about agriculture and its role in the environment," says Innes. "Eventually, these consumers will drive the supply chain, demanding to know where and how food products are produced. This means that all companies that provide products for this market will need to have a history on hand that spells out such things as the environmental and energy impacts. We already have these kinds of records in our operation."
Further down the line, Innes says, Becker Underwood will continue to play its part in helping agriculture fulfill its mission of providing food, feed, fiber and fuel to a growing global population by expanding upon the business layers it currently has in place. "We have hugely positive things to say to the world," he says. "And there's no shortage of problems still to be solved."