Hybrid Corn Checkup

February 5, 2010 04:12 AM

Picking the best hybrids for your farm requires experience, research and building relationships with advisers you can trust. An unusual growing season, such as 2009, makes the task even more challenging. Here are a few tips from experts to keep in mind as you review your hybrid choices for 2010.

Goodbye, old favorite. Ten years ago, you were fairly safe sticking with your old favorite hybrid. Nowadays, hybrids disappear before they can even earn that title.

"Hybrids are improving so rapidly that they go obsolete in three or four years, superseded by new genetics,” says Dale Sorensen, a technology development manager for Monsanto Company. That's not a bad thing, he adds, because rapid breeding progress is increasing average yields by 1½ bu. to 2 bu. per acre per year.

"You can't rely solely on your own experience anymore, either,” adds Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. "You must use other sources of information.”

Field-by-field matchup. "The first step in selecting hybrids is to understand what we call your ‘key environments,'” says Brent Wilson, technical services manager for Pioneer Hi-Bred. "Is a field droughty or poorly drained? How has it been managed? Has the fertility been drawn down by previous operators? Has it been in continuous corn or a rotation? These things can make a hybrid perform differently on a given soil type.”

Ask yourself if there is anything odd or unique to each field, Wilson continues. "Does the field have high insect pressure, for example? Or is it a low-lying creek bottom where you are likely to get foliar diseases?”

Some hybrids are better for narrow rows, and some do better in no-till situations. Others are best suited for conventional tillage.

"Hybrids have different preferences for nitrogen timing—some prefer high amounts of preplant nitrogen, while others prefer high amounts of sidedress nitrogen,” says Mike Kavanaugh, agronomy manager for AgriGold. "Some are better at maintaining ear, root and stalk integrity at higher populations.”

Don't forget about maturity, Wilson says.

"Consider whether you'll be harvesting a field early to meet a fall grain contract or whether it will need to stand well for later harvest.”

The maturity issue gets into personal preferences, Wilson adds. "Some growers feel that if they go to early hybrids, they are giving up yield potential, so they stay with full-season hybrids,” he says. "Others hate dealing with wet corn and want to be able to harvest early. If it was my farm, I'd want to spread maturities.”

Scope out test plots.
Look at multiple environments, Ferrie suggests, but don't rely too much on plots far away.

"If you're talking plot results with a seedsman, ask what percentage of plot wins are from your area as opposed to a five-state region,” Ferrie adds. "Look for plots grown with soil conditions and management practices similar to your own.

"If you're in an intensive nitrogen program with multiple applications and nitrate testing, look at a plot that was managed that way,” Ferrie says. "If you apply most of your nitrogen in one shot, look for that style of plot. There are big differences in hybrid performance, depending on how you manage nitrogen. The same differences in performance may occur based on tillage systems or on whether or not you apply a fungicide.

"Refining your hybrid selection this way may get you another 15 bu. or 20 bu., compared with picking hybrids based on general plot performance,” Ferrie adds.

As you compare yields in a plot, check whether the report includes a least significant difference (LSD) value, Sorensen says. That number tells you how many bushels difference in yield is required to be significant. "You may find that the top 10 hybrids in a trial are not significantly different from each other,” he adds.

"Keep in mind that yield is only one of the components that make up gross income per acre,” Sorensen adds. "Some trials will report stalk and root lodging. Be sure to look at moisture content at harvest—6 or 7 points of moisture will impact your bottom line because you'll have to dry the wetter corn or leave it in the field longer.”

"Documented consistent performance is the key to selecting hybrids that will perform well in your operation,” says Purdue University Extension corn specialist Bob Nielsen. (For more of his thoughts on evaluating plot data, see the sidebar on the facing page.)

Diversity reduces risk.
You can also reduce the risk from weather and pests by planting more than one hybrid.

"You want diverse genetics with superior agronomics on your farm—not just the one that won this year's plot,” says AgriGold's Kava-naugh. "Who knew the 2009 growing season would be 350 to 500 growing degree units short? Who knew it would be a wet, challenging spring, creating conditions we don't usually see?

"Growers who do not diversify their genetics put all their eggs in one basket, making their corn crop more susceptible to Mother Nature,” he adds. "Hybrids respond differently in different environments.

"Because of the unusual weather, eyespot, which usually is a northern disease, was present throughout the central Corn Belt, clear into Mississippi. In some fields, anthrac-nose caused hybrids to die prematurely, without finishing grain fill. In the southern Corn Belt, rust was a huge problem,” Kavanaugh explains.

"In 2009, hybrids with poor disease tolerance took it on the chin. Often, hybrids with workhorse agronomics—root and stalk strength, tolerance to leaf diseases—produced racehorse results. It's so easy to get caught up in high yield, but you needed disease tolerance last season to fully maximize genetic potential.

"Genetic diversity was the lesson learned again in 2009,” Kavanaugh concludes.

"Yearly fluctuations in weather make it difficult to select a single hybrid that will have stable performance year after year, even on the same field or farm,” says Pioneer agronomy research manager Mike Rupert.

"By planting hybrids of differing maturities over a period of time that may last several weeks, corn growers help ensure that their entire crop will not be simultaneously affected by risk factors during germination, emergence, vegetative growth, flowering, grain fill and even harvest,” Rupert continues. "Farmers also mitigate risk by choosing hybrids bred for resistance or tolerance to anticipated environmental and pest pressures.”

How many hybrids? "Let your key environments drive your number of hybrids,” Wilson advises. "If all your soils are pretty similar, you may only need three or four.”

"I like to see farmers use three hybrids, from different genetic families or different maturities,” Kavanaugh says. "Some prefer to plant four or five.”

Consider following the 25-50-25 rule. "I like to plant 50% of my acres in the heart of my maturity range,” Sorensen says. "If I were farming in the northern third of Illinois, 110 days would be the sweet spot of my maturity. I'd plant 25% earlier-maturing hybrids and 25% later-maturing hybrids—for a 10- to 12-day range.

"You want to spread genetics from a maturity standpoint so as to maintain standability into the later part of the season and maintain yield,” Sorensen continues. "Four hybrids will be enough to do that.

"A hybrid pollinates in seven to 10 days; you want some to pollinate later and some earlier to widen the window. Sometimes you have an eight- or nine-day period when it is 100°F every day. You want to spread risk over a larger period of time. You also want to stagger harvest, so consider how many acres you can harvest in a day, ” Sorensen advises.

Planting several hybrids of the same maturity from different companies doesn't do much to spread risk, Sorensen continues. "The pollination dates for all the varieties could be right on top of each other,” he says. "Using multiple
maturities is where you get genetic differences.”

Planting hybrids with different traits tends to mix the gene pool a bit, says Jason Webster, Practical Farm Research director for Beck's Hybrids. "For example, the genetics for YieldGard and Herculex are from distinctly
different camps,” he says.

To reduce disease problems in continuous corn, never plant the same hybrid two years in a row, Webster adds. He cautions against planting too many different hybrids
because you may not be able to manage them all properly.

"I like to do infrared crop-health imaging during the growing season to identify and correct problems,” Webster adds. "If you have five hybrids in the same field, it's difficult to distinguish variety differences from field variation.”

The identical-hybrid issue. Many farmers wonder if they could wind up with identical hybrids when they buy from two different companies.

 "The Federal Seed Act stipulates that no commercial corn hybrid may be sold under two or more variety names,” says Pioneer's Rupert. "This law also requires that seed corn tags or bags identify the unique variety name [even though it allows seed to also be sold under a brand name]. Therefore, growers should check the seed corn bag tags to avoid planting hybrids from two different companies that have the same variety name.”

"All our hybrids are proprietary, so you can only get Pioneer hybrids out of a Pioneer bag,” Wilson says. "If you buy two Pioneer hybrids, you know you are getting a diverse set of genetics.”

"There is no sure way to avoid purchasing identical hybrids from different companies,” says Purdue's Nielsen.

"You can stick with one seed company and choose among their good-yielding hybrids,” he says. "You can choose good-yielding hybrids from different maturity groups. Ask your seed sales reps to tell you which hybrids from other companies are similar to their own. Or you can check seed tags after you receive the seed and make exchanges for different hybrids.”

"If you can fulfill all the environments on your farm from one company and still be diversified, you're better off to stay within that company,” says AgriGold's Kavanaugh. "If there are holes that company can't fill, maybe then take a look at a second company.”

You can help identify high-yielding hybrids by testing three or four new ones every year on a limited acreage, Sorensen adds. "You should always be looking to upgrade,” he says. "The speed with which new hybrids are developed is another reason to build relationships—to get some of those new hybrids.”


Consistency, Consistency, Consistency
If location is the key to real estate values, then consistency is the key to picking hybrids that will perform well on your farm, says Purdue University Extension corn specialist Bob Nielsen. That's documented consistency, in the form of yield performance in test plots, he adds.
"Sales pitches and advertisements can heighten your awareness, but they should not take the place of meaningful yield data from well-
designed performance trials of seed companies,” Nielsen continues.
Reviewing the previous year's yield data as well as this year's can help you spot consistent performers, Nielsen points out. He and other experts recommend studying yield trials at various locations.
"Multiple locations represent possible weather patterns,” Nielsen says. "Weather variability influences hybrid performance more than any other variable.”

If trials have been statistically analyzed, the consistent performers are the ones within the upper group of similar-yielding hybrids as determined by the least significant difference (LSD), Nielsen says.
If a trial has not been statistically analyzed, you can evaluate a
hybrid's performance relative to the average yield of the trial. Look for the hybrids that consistently yield 5% above the average yield of trials in which they are entered.

Or, as an alternate method, identify hybrids that consistently yield at least 90% of the maximum-yielding hybrid in a trial. In either case, Nielsen emphasizes, the key is consistent performance over many sites.

"After you identify a group of consistently high-yielding hybrids, filter them for traits important to your operation, such as resistance to foliar diseases in a continuous-corn situation,” Nielsen concludes.


You can e-mail Darrell Smith at dsmith@farmjournal.com.


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