A Home for 600,000 Plants

Seed Production

To meet the demand for seeds with improved characteristics, Crop Science depends on innovative concepts. To this end, and with the support of Bayer Technology Services, a fully automated greenhouse that uses forty percent less energy has now been constructed.

Cotton plants on the move – fully automatically, in Bayer Crop Science’s new greenhouse.

Anyone who works in a greenhouse has to be able to endure a lot. The high humidity and temperatures in excess of 40 degrees Celsius (over 100°F) represent a special challenge for those working inside. These are also the kind of conditions inside Crop Science’s new greenhouse for cotton in Memphis, Tennessee. The difference is that, in the new construction, no one needs to be exposed to these conditions for very long, because a large part of the day-to-day operations is carried out fully automatically. Watering, fertilizing and lighting are all computer-controlled, which adds up to an important contribution to the health of employees

And when the staff really does have to work manually with the growing cotton plants, remote-controlled rolling tables transport the relevant greenery to an adjoining building, which has a climate controlled workspace much more agreeable to human beings. Re-potting, sowing new beds, sorting out seedlings with undesired qualities, sampling and testing, pollinating other plants, harvesting ripe seeds, and checking resistance to a particular herbicide – these are all typical tasks in the production of cotton seed. All of these activities, with the exception of pollinating and harvesting mature plants, can now be done without the need for personnel to enter the greenhouse.

With its FiberMax and Stoneville cotton seed brands, Crop Science is the market leader in many important farming countries, including the United States, Brazil, Turkey and Greece, and part of the seed supply originates in Memphis.

One man who has played a major role in getting Crop Science’s new greenhouse up and running is Ernie Liberati, a project manager with Bayer Technology Services. Liberati is an old hand: he started his career with Bayer when Gerald Ford was in the White House. Forty years and six U.S. presidents later, the chemical engineer can look back on countless engineering projects. He knows practically every Bayer site in North America, and depending on the particular project, has spent months or even years working at each of them.

2011, however, was a year in which even the experienced Liberati moved into uncharted territory. When he landed at Memphis International Airport for the kick-off meeting at Crop Science, there was more waiting for him than just his first project in Tennessee. The content of this particular enterprise offered something new, as well. “Up to that point, I’d never had anything to do with cotton, seeds or greenhouses,” Liberati recalls with a smile.

But that didn’t matter, because the engineer knew that the relevant experts would contribute their specialist knowledge wherever it was needed. As project manager, Liberati’s main job was to dovetail all of the other participants in the 18 million dollar project together seamlessly. At the same time, he had to ensure that the technical execution stayed on time and within budget, and above all was carried out safely and accident-free.

“We want to improve our competitiveness – and Bayer Technology Services is helping us do it.”

Bernd Nowack

Head of Global Engineering, Crop Science

The comfortable working conditions for the employees, however, are only one advantage of the automated greenhouse. Another is that the automated system offers more space and, because of that, a significant boost in efficiency, coupled with better resource conservation. This was also the initial inspiration behind the project, because the demand for cotton seed is growing. And not only for the quantity, but also in terms of the properties exhibited by the plants themselves.

Bit by bit, new properties make their way into the genetic material of the seed by way of a complex cycle of defined crossbreeding steps. To put it more simply: step by step, over many generations, certain characteristics are crossbred into the plants. And this continues until plants grow that, in their pods, contain seeds with exactly the desired genetic traits. It is a long process, and it takes time. And a lot of space. At a certain point, the old greenhouse in Memphis, covering around 1,500 square meters, was no longer big enough. To be adequately equipped to handle the growing demand, a bigger one was needed. But how big, exactly? To answer this question, Liberati turned to a colleague in the Operational Excellence and Logistics area at Bayer Technology Services in Baytown: Brijesh Rao.

“Once you know how many seed projects are supposed to run simultaneously within a given period, and how many generations are required to breed for a particular characteristic, you’re able to develop a very accurate model,” Rao explains. In his calculations, the expert had to take into account that cotton plants need to grow for about 16 weeks before their seeds can be harvested and the process continued. He also calculated with between 100 and 200 seeds per plant, and realized that he could count on only around one percent of the seedlings possessing the desired characteristics to be used for further pollination or as a seed supplier. The final result was clear: the new greenhouse would need to be extensive enough to house 600,000 seedlings each season. This translated into an area of 7,400 square meters – or almost five times the area of the older building.

The fact that the new greenhouse actually only covers 3,700 square meters can be attributed to automation. In the greenhouse proper, the plants now grow side by side over the entire area, because there is no need for people to get to them directly. “That allowed us to cut the required space by half,” Liberati explains. Which translates into energy savings and lower operating costs. “We calculate that Crop Science uses 40 percent less gas and power than they would with an off-the-shelf solution,” says Liberati. An important result.

But that is not the only reason for Crop Science’s satisfaction with the new building. “This greenhouse puts us in a position to develop highly efficient seed lines with new properties, both today and in the future. That’s a crucial contribution to our competitiveness,” says Bernd Nowack, at that time head of Global Engineering at Bayer Crop Science. Nowack is also thrilled at how professionally the partners completed the project on schedule. “Our Bayer Technology Services colleagues have shown once again that they are a team to rely on for innovative projects.”

While Bayer Crop Science is producing the first seeds in the new greenhouse, Ernie Liberati moved on long ago. Today, he is at the helm of another project for Crop Science, this time in Kansas City. Unlike Memphis, Liberati knows the Midwest city well, because it was in Kansas City that he completed his very first project for Bayer, in 1978. Back then, he still had his entire working life ahead of him.

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