A closer look at how to get the seed you want next year
Like any finite resource, seed price and availability are largely governed by the basic principle of supply and demand. Conventional wisdom likewise offers a basic solution—book early. But is it really that easy?
"It’s not as simple as book early," says DuPont Pioneer corn marketing manager Josh St. Peters. "You do need to be in touch early, though, to know exactly what’s available. Starting the conversation early is more important than booking early."
Choice can be exhilarating, or it can be debilitating. Seed reps try to keep the threat of
information overload at bay by learning as much as they can about their customers’ farms.
"Our customers know their farm better than anybody," St. Peters says. "We try to know it just as well." Choice is more than just a brand name and hybrid number, he adds.
"There’s a lot to pick from," St. Peters admits. "Make sure your sales rep knows what planter you’re using and what tillage system you have. Do you need flats or rounds? Bigger or smaller seed? All of these variables come into play." Armed with more details, seed reps can get you the seed you want, or better yet—the seed you need, he says.
Stick to your decisions. Buyer’s remorse is real, whether you’re buying a new truck, a new pair of boots or a new corn hybrid. Seed supply issues often happen when farmers book early and then keep changing their mind, says Myron Stine, vice president of sales and marketing for Stine Seed Company. "Booking early doesn’t do a lot," he says. "It helps, but what helps even more is paying early. And the ultimate is shipping early."
Stine says he sees and understands the fundamental conflict with booking seed. As commodity prices fluctuate, the decision to plant any given crop mix becomes much more—or much less—profitable. Consider this: As of July, corn had a year-to-date (YTD) high of $7.77 and a YTD low of $5.51, a swing of more than $2 per bushel. Soybeans were even more volatile, with a YTD high of $16.72 and a YTD low of $11.70.
Throw in an unseasonably warm winter and spring, and matters get even more complicated, Stine says. Winter production skyrocketed to match bigger spring planting intentions for both crops. "It turned everything into a guessing game," he says. The guesswork expands when farmers make double orders. Again, he says, this practice is understandable. "It’s a way for farmers to hedge their bets to get the seed they want." But this usually just results in what Stine refers to as "availability chaos."
"The No. 1 thing people can do is ship as soon as possible," he says. "The sooner that farmers ship, the more likely they are to get what they want."
Nine-tenths there. Joe Merschman, president and CEO of Merschman Seeds, agrees that early shipping is more important than early booking. "Possession is nine-tenths of the law," he says. "Take delivery in November if you can."
Early booking lets farmers get their hands on better-quality seed. Merschman says seed companies typically ship their best seed first. Plus, "seed that is bagged during warmer weather tends to have better quality than seed bagged in the middle of winter," he adds.
Merschman Seeds is one of several seed companies upgrading their inventory software to help make the seed purchase process more efficient and satisfying. The latest software improvements at Merschman Seeds allow the company to move to a real-time barcoded inventory management system.
"It’s kind of like shopping on Amazon," Merschman says. "Our dealers can see live inventory amounts. We see this as a sticking point for growers. If you book early and pay early and still don’t get what you want—that’s disheartening. This is more of a guarantee."
The complexity of seed purchasing is almost "off the scale" right now. "Farmers are used to making decisions based on what they did a year ago, but a year ago is more like a decade ago because things are changing so quickly," Merschman says. "Some products are only in the lineup for one year. We’re consistently moving ahead. In fact, most seed companies are aggressively moving to the latest and greatest genetics and traits."
Complexity aside, Merschman tells his customers that purchasing seed has always been a pretty straightforward battle between time and money. If you have a lot of both, that’s great. If you have neither, that’s bad. But if you have either time or money in abundance (but not both), you should still have enough leverage to book your top choices.
Avoid cherry-picking data. Everyone wants to pick a winner, and examining yield trials is one good way to find winners. Jeff Housman, customer agronomist for Mycogen Seeds, says it can be tempting to choose the No. 1 yielding hybrid from a single plot. But Housman warns that approach could be a little shortsighted.
"Look for consistency while examining plot information," he recommends. "Consistency is what is needed to determine the best-performing genetics. Growers should examine hybrid data from a minimum of five plots. A well-performing hybrid might not be the No. 1 variety for every
single plot, but it should come in the top third of each plot."
Farmers should look well beyond the top-yielding varieties when figuring out which new hybrids they want to try, Housman says. Asking the right questions will often land you the right hybrids.
For example, what is the history of disease pressure on your farm? Is the field a corn-on-corn rotation or a corn-on-soybean rotation? What soil types are present, and what tillage practices do you use? All of these factors should play a role in finding the hybrids that will fit best on your farm, he says.
Farmers can also tap into a variety of plot data, Housman says, including analysis from local seed company, third-party and Extension research trials. Or better yet, conduct your own on-farm trials, he says.
"Growers can do trial plots on their own by purchasing a few bags of a new hybrid," he says. "This helps them plan for the future and gives them the opportunity to test the hybrid before planting it in entire fields."
Incomplete advice. The bottom line is that "book early" is incomplete advice when it comes to getting the hybrids or varieties you want. Study what’s available, figure out what fits on your farm, start the conversation with your seed rep early, make a plan and stick to it as much as possible.
Planning will be especially important heading into 2013, with experts already predicting that there will be tight seed supplies due to the ongoing widespread drought in the U.S. Many of the seed production hot spots, including several located in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, were hit especially hard by the hot, dry summer.
In other words, preparation is just as important as timing. The early bird might get the worm, but it was the second mouse that got the cheese.
Take the Guesswork Out of Seed Selection
James Hall has a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence and neural networks from the University of Illinois. That might not sound like a discipline that has a lot of practical application in agriculture, but it’s exactly where he has honed his expertise.
Hall is the principal architect behind the technology used by the agribusiness company CropFax, which promises to take the guesswork out of seed selection through its trial analyses. Hall’s proprietary seed performance system tracks information about growth and yield performance for more than 28,000 corn hybrids and more than 14,000 soybean varieties across more than 1 million total field trials. The company takes these results and weighs them digitally against local climate conditions to create custom "Top 20" lists for farmers.
CropFax factors in the following types of production data: climate, growing degree days, last spring and first fall freeze dates, precipitation probability, soil temperature, independent yield comparisons, drydown, standability, disease resis-tance and harvest moistures. Individual results vary, but the company says its recommendations out-yielded USDA averages by about 33% in a 2010 study.
What are the next layers of data that CropFax plans to fold into its computations?
"There is no telling where this predictive technology is headed, but we hope to stay at the developmental forefront," Hall says.