Avoid errors that slash yield even before you plant
Think of seed selection as profit enhancement. Even if you do everything else right, from tillage through marketing, you lose yield and profit if you plant a hybrid that isn’t right for your soil types and conditions. That crucial decision process begins with your own fields and local test plots.
Seed selection provides ample opportunity for expensive mistakes. Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie has witnessed most of them. Here are the 10 mistakes he most frequently sees—so you can avoid them.
1. Putting price over performance. "Don’t spend more time looking for the best price than for the best hybrids," Ferrie advises. "Smart growers talk about what a hybrid did for them, not how cheap the seed was.
"If I ask a grower what hybrids he is going to plant and he reels off a list of maturity ranges, rather than specific hybrids or traits, I know he spent too much time looking for the best deal and too little time seeking the best performers," Ferrie says.
2. Neglecting to spread risk. This mistake can take several forms. One is planting the majority of your acres to one or two outstanding hybrids. "That may be OK in southern regions where growers have a long window to spread out their planting," Ferrie says. "In the Midwest, where many farmers plant all their corn in five to seven days, it creates an unacceptable risk. Their corn will pollinate at the same time, making all of it subject to heat and other stresses."
Despite your best efforts, you may not know how a new hybrid will respond to every weather situation. "Not long ago, one hybrid had two big years, so growers planted a lot of it the following season," Ferrie says. "Only then did they discover that the hybrid couldn’t handle 96°F temperatures during pollination and ear fill—it got kicked in the teeth on yield. That hybrid still won a lot of plots that year, but only in northern areas, where temperatures were cooler. If a disease problem had shown up, growers could have managed it by applying a fungicide; but you can’t manage against heat.
"It is fine to plant the hottest hybrid, but not on too many of your acres. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket," Ferrie advises.
Another reason to diversify genetics is green snap, which occurs when corn grows really fast during a short period of time and the plants become brittle.
"If you plant one hybrid in a limited window of time, many of your fields will be subject to green snap if you experience high winds while the plants are sensitive," Ferrie says.
3. Failing to use test plots. The purpose of test plots is to help guide your seed choices for next year. But you must know the right way to use the information.
"First, understand the difference between show plots and test plots," Ferrie advises. "Don’t make your seed choices based only on show plots. Show plots have value in demonstrating higher-end genetics. But they are planted next to a road to show off hybrids in ideal conditions.
"Show plots may have received extra nitrogen and two fungicide applications. If you don’t sidedress nitrogen or apply fungicides on your own farm, show plot results may be meaningless to you."
Study actual test plots that were planted with soil, climate and management practices similar to your own. Taking factors like these into account may add another 15 bu. or 20 bu. per acre, compared with picking hybrids based on general plot performance, Ferrie says.
Although test plots are valuable, it’s possible to rely on them too much, he cautions. "Weather makes hybrids shine," he says. "Look at regional plot data over a period of years. It will tell you if a hybrid is not suited for your conditions, such as high temperatures."
When analyzing test plot data, keep in mind that genetically identical hybrids may be marketed by several companies. "I have seen growers plant the three or four top hybrids in local plots and then discover they all contained the same genetics, only from different companies," Ferrie says. "That does not diversify risk."
To avoid planting identical genetics from several companies, check the seed tags. Under the Federal Seed Act, companies are required to include the unique variety name (as opposed to the company’s brand name or number). You also can ask your seedsman to help identify similar genetic lines sold by other companies. Or you can buy all your hybrids from one company.
4. Not thinking ahead. If you want to plant the hottest, highest-yielding hybrids, you have to seize a new hybrid as soon as it is released. "Hybrids move through the cycle so rapidly nowadays that you can’t wait until they prove themselves on farms," Ferrie explains.
"By that time, they may be gone from the marketplace. So you have to study the experimental hybrids displayed in show plots and test plots. Take notes, and keep track of the ones that look promising. Be thinking about what you will plant three or four years down the road," he says.
5. No on-farm testing. Incorporating new hybrids into your rotation is a bit of a balancing act. You don’t want to be the last farmer to discover a yield-busting hybrid, but you don’t want to bet the farm on an unproven performer, either.
"You wouldn’t buy a car without test-driving it," Ferrie says. "But I see farmers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on new hybrids before testing them in their own fields, under their own conditions. For example, I’ve seen growers plant a new hybrid that had performed well following soybeans into a continuous-corn situation, where it revealed its susceptibility to ear rot. Dockage for foreign material counteracted its high yield potential."
You can test-drive new hybrids by planting your own test plot, perhaps by teaming up with a neighbor. "If you don’t plant your own test plot, pay close attention to other local plots," Ferrie advises. "Don’t attend field days just for the free meal."
Before the season, tell your seedsman what you want to see in hybrid comparisons and management practices. He may be able to set up some test plots that will be helpful to you.
6. Not following a plan. After picking out your hybrids, plan where to plant each one. Then follow your plan. "Often, I see growers lay out a nice plan, showing where each hybrid is going to go, based on soil conditions," Ferrie says. "But in the stress of planting season, they fail to plant each hybrid where they intended.
"This leads to all kinds of unfavorable consequences. I’ve witnessed growers put a hybrid that resists deer damage next to a highway instead of next to their woods. Others plant herbicide-resistant hybrids where conventional hybrids were supposed to go, leading to misapplication of herbicides," Ferrie says. "Losing track of which hybrids go where has caused some growers to plant their refuge hybrids without an insecticide."
7. Poor record keeping. "With the array of traits on the market today, record keeping is critical," Ferrie says. "If planting conditions force you to deviate from your plan, be diligent in recording what you did. It will keep you from spraying a conventional hybrid with Roundup or Liberty herbicide or failing to apply an insecticide on conventional hybrids."
With newer planter monitors, you can build an as-applied map, showing what hybrid was planted in each field, on which date. "If you have an older planter, you can record this infor-mation in a book in the tractor cab," Ferrie says. "Some growers do both, in case they have a computer problem and lose some data."
8. Not considering harvest. "Part of diversification is spacing out hybrid maturities so you don’t run into a bottleneck at harvest," Ferrie says. "If all of your crop matures at the same time, when harvesttime arrives you may find all of your grain is so wet there’s no place to get started. By the end of harvest, though, some of the grain may be so dry it shells out at the combine head."
|If you’re applying starter fertilizer in the furrow, pay attention to the salt load in the fertilizer—and plant high-quality seed.
PHOTO: Lindsey Benne
9. Not managing starter placement. Fertilizer burn can wreck a picket-fence stand, preventing a high-yielding hybrid from strutting its stuff. "If you apply starter fertilizer in the furrow, you must pay attention to the salt load in the fertilizer, and you must plant high-quality seed," Ferrie says. "Applying starter in the furrow with low-quality seed is like double-dipping on risk factors.
"Cracks in the pericarp increase the chance of burning the seed," Ferrie continues. "Remember that round seed typically has more cracks than flat seed.
"Cheap seed may not be the highest quality. Investigate the quality-control procedures at the seed house where you obtain your seed," he advises.
If you apply starter fertilizer, make sure your application system is working properly. "Every year, I hear from some starter user who had one or two rows plugged," Ferrie says. "That not only sets those rows behind, but it also puts more starter on the other rows. Check your application system before planting, and use a monitor to make sure it’s working."
10. Ignoring your best resource. "Many farmers don’t use their seedsman enough," Ferrie says. "There are a lot of good seedsmen out there, and they understand their products. Most seedsmen have seen all of their hybrids under many conditions and management styles; they can relate that experience to your operation.
|Your seed rep knows how hybrids perform under many conditions and management styles. Let him help you pick which ones will perform best for you.
PHOTO: Lindsey Benne
"Sit down with your seedsman and let him help you draw up a battle plan. Discuss your situation and your management techniques, such as your rotation, tillage and fertility program. Explain your harvest schedule—how much wet corn you can handle," he says.
Listen to your seedsman’s suggestions regarding diversity. "I’ve seen a grower’s eyes glaze over when his seedsman started discussing diversifying hybrids because the grower was focused on plot winners," Ferrie says.
This brings us back to where we started: price versus performance. "A good seedsman can make up for a lot of difference in price, compared with shopping on the Internet or purchasing through a buyers’ club," Ferrie says.
|Save samples of each hybrid you plant to check for
quality issues if the hybrid struggles after emergence.
PHOTO: Lindsey Benne
Although they are not part of seed selection, there are steps you can take at or before planting to help your carefully chosen hybrid perform to its potential.
"Before planting season, take your planter meters to a test stand," advises Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie.
"Have them tested at the optimum speed for the seed you will be planting and for the vacuum setting on your air planter. Check the brush or singulator setting and the plate size.
"Then, when you plant, use the correct settings for each hybrid as you move from field to field. Don’t just pick a happy medium, not at today’s seed prices—stop and change the settings. Today’s planter meters work well if you take time to adjust them.
"It’s a good idea to save samples of each hybrid you plant," Ferrie adds. "Keep the samples in a cool, dry place. If a hybrid struggles coming out of the ground, you can check if there’s a seed quality issue."