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Selecting a Tobacco Transplant Production System

Bill Maksymowicz and Gary Palmer

Farmers now have at least six choices for tobacco transplants:

There is no "right" system for everyone; an ideal system for one producer may be a costly nightmare for another. The following outline provides some general information about each of these systems.

Traditional Plant Beds

Experience has shown that there is more to providing an adequate supply of plants from a conventional bed than scattering seed and expecting there to be a good, uniform stand of plants when you pull the canvas. A good management program includes: Traditional plant beds have been used successfully for years, but proper management is necessary to produce an adequate number of healthy transplants. Producing plants in a traditional bed requires no major cash outlays. Transplant cost is generally less than 3.5 cents each. Diseases and insects can be effectively controlled with currently labeled pesticides. Once plants are pulled they should be used within 2 to 3 days.

Precision Seeded Beds

In the precision seeding system pelletized tobacco seed is drilled, using a special seeder, in a bed that has been prepared in a traditional manner. These seeders are expensive, so the seeding operation is done on a custom basis. The same recommendations that apply to conventional beds apply to precision-seeded beds.

The goal of this system is once-over pulling, so the beds will need to be clipped more frequently than conventional beds. Sanitation of seeding and clipping equipment is critical to this system.

This system has the same costs as those for a traditional plant bed, plus the additional cost of custom seeding, mower, and undercutter to use when pulling the plants. Labor costs at pulling should be less than with a traditional plant bed, but other costs in equipment and custom-seeding make transplants from this system slightly more expensive than traditional bed plants.

Direct-Seeded Greenhouse Plants

Direct-seeded greenhouse plants are relatively new to Kentucky tobacco producers. High quality transplants can be grown that can minimize production problems throughout the growing season. The down-side is that failure can often mean total failure, leaving the grower without plants.

Be aware of these precautions if you are new to this system of production:

When correctly managed, plants produced under this system: The need to reset is virtually eliminated. Research indicates that plants will be ready to top and harvest 5 to 10 days earlier than plants set at the same time from a conventional bed, with no differences in leaf number or total yield between transplant sources.

Some growers report more ground suckers with greenhouse plants. This is caused mainly by plants being set too shallow or not being set straight in the ground. Ground suckers are usually more prevalent under high soil moisture conditions, regardless of transplant source.

These systems require a high initial capital investment for the greenhouse, seeding, and mowing equipment. Per plant costs can be reduced if more than one tobacco crop is produced in the house each year. Over 7 to 10 years, transplants from this system should be only slightly more expensive than those produced by other methods.

Plug and Transfer

In the plug and transfer system a producer buys small seedlings from a plant supplier, transfers them to larger trays, and floats them in a simple outside water bed for about four weeks.

There is no "standard" water bed; they are often built to fit materials on hand. These are some general guidelines:

If you are considering greenhouse construction you may want to try plug and transfer first. All material used for plug and transfer can be used in the greenhouse, and starting at this level will give you some relatively low investment experience with container-grown plants.

Additional Options

Other transplant source options include both container-grown and bare-root transplants. The key to success with these sources is dealing with a reputable supplier. You should assume, especially when dealing with plant-bed raised transplants, that there is a risk of bringing in disease and insect problems.


Producers have been given more options on how to raise or buy transplants in the last few years than they have had in the last 50 years. No one system is the best for everyone.

Learn as much as you can about each system through information available from your county Extension office, meetings, trade shows, and experiences of others. Look beyond the cost per plant when deciding which system is best for you. Consider being able to schedule planting, and the reduced labor involved in handling and setting container-grown plants.

The transplant production business is growing rapidly, so shop around for the best value for your dollar. Know how much time and money you are willing to invest and be sure of your risks and options.

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