Fourth and Wrong

July 27, 2012 10:17 PM
Fourth and Wrong

Get the real score on "offensive" versus "defensive" hybrids

Sports analogies have always been irresistible to farmers. That’s probably why "offensive" and "defensive" hybrids are such well-established concepts. But some seed retailers say those terms are becoming increasingly obsolete.
"I don’t even use ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’ in my conversations," says Stephanie Rousonelos, a technical agronomist with Channel. "In general, most hybrids can act offensively or defensively in a given situation, so those terms can be confusing."

Go deep. Several other factors are more important when drafting a balanced seed selection, Rousonelos says. "What it comes down to is looking at yield potential and spreading out the risk through different maturities and genetics," she says. "We look at other things, too, like disease history, a farmer’s management style and plant populations. We also look at averages instead of responding to extremes. You never know what is going to happen next year."
Avoiding those extremes can be a tough mental hurdle, Rousonelos admits. "It’s important to take the emotion out of your seed selection."
Eric Boersma, Syngenta corn genetics portfolio manager, agrees that referring to a hybrid as offensive or defensive is a bit of an oversimplification. "A lot of people want to classify them that way, but some things have changed," he says.

Going both ways. For starters, seed companies have become better at combining many offensive and defensive characteristics to get the best of both worlds, he says. As a result, today’s hybrids come with varying degrees of both offense and defense.
Farmers today also have more crop protection tools to help mitigate risk, he says. For example, seed treatments give seedlings protection against diseases, insects and nematodes, allowing for a stronger start. And in-season fungicide sprays can give otherwise at-risk hybrids enough protection to avoid a would-be standability disaster.
"There are a lot of factors farmers can control," Boersma says. "We try to help farmers choose a package of hybrids that spread risk for things they can’t control. The hybrid buying decision is getting more complicated all the time, and every decision is an
important one."
Nick Benson, corn product specialist with Latham Hi-Tech Seeds, says he prefers using a financial analogy over a sports one—he doesn’t talk "lineup" with his customers, he talks "portfolio" instead.
"No financial planner is going to advise clients to invest solely in mutual funds or high-risk stocks," he says. "And you certainly wouldn’t pick a stock on its three-month performance. It’s more a matter of looking at your whole package and looking at risk versus reward—and always covering your bases."
It’s tempting to go through the very latest F.I.R.S.T. results with a highlighter and select favorites that way, Benson says. That can be a risky venture—last year’s top performer could be this year’s dud if environmental conditions change enough, he says.
"This year was ideal for those portfolio-type conversations," he says. "Last year was an offensive year. You never know what the weather’s going to be, so you can’t base this year’s seed selection on last year’s results."
Benson points to white mold susceptibility in soybeans as one example. The hot, dry weather that plagued the Midwest this summer means there will be little or no white mold pressure this year. So if you only pick this year’s field trial winners, you’re likely selecting varieties with good drought tolerance, but not necessarily ones with good white mold tolerance, he says.
Farmers need a balanced portfolio, Benson says, whether they’re spreading risk against a particular disease such as white mold, or whether they’re hedging their bets against any environmental hardship.
"Year in, year out, that’s what’s best for the customer," he says.

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