Truth in Trials

July 29, 2011 09:46 AM
Truth in Trials

On-farm yield tests help the choosy choose wisely

David Fathauer faced a tough decision as weather turned the 2011 planting season into a marathon. "Our on-farm test plots are extensive and time consuming to plant. It was tempting to leave the plots until we had the rest of our acreage planted," admits the Dalton City, Ill., farmer.
Instead, Fathauer chose to make the plots a priority—just as the family has done for the past 23 years. The on-farm corn plot contains 33 hybrids and covers nearly 100 acres. They also plant a separate soybean test plot.

"We have our favorite brands and like to see how they stack up, rather than assume they are the best for our farm," Fathauer says. "We gain more than just another set of yield and moisture data. We evaluate the grain quality and harvestability of each hybrid, and those observations influence which hybrids we buy the following year."

In their trials this year are nine refuge hybrids. "Several years ago I realized our refuge hybrids were mostly duds. There was little information on refuge hybrids, yet we were devoting 20% of our corn acreage to them," he says.

Last year Fathauer had a glyphosate-only-tolerant hybrid outyield a hybrid with the same genetics that was fully stacked with traits. Although he realizes that in-the-bag refuge systems are coming, he wants to be sure he doesn’t sacrifice yield for convenience. His test plots will help him with those tough questions and more.

A bigger picture. Fathauer supplements what he learns from his own plots by studying university trials. He also taps into F.I.R.S.T. (Farmer’s Independent Research of Seed Technologies), an association of farmers focused on testing newly developed and trait-enhanced corn and soybean products.

Started in 1997 by Kevin Coey, the effort has grown from a handful of testing sites in Illinois to more than 65,000 test plots on 180 farms in 14 states. Last year’s plots covered 850 seed products from 72 different seed companies.

You can access the free yield evaluations at An online seed product selection tool called Seed Scout ( can be used to identify top-performing products by maturity and traits of interest that fit your specific farm and practices. Watch for a final written tally of yield results in the December issue of Farm Journal.

Joe Bruce, general manager of F.I.R.S.T., explains that the company’s testing efforts are important because the trials are independent, third-party evaluations performed under real conditions. "Our goal is to put unbiased information into farmers’ hands when they are actually making hybrid selections," Bruce says.

Product testing is grouped into zones based on central relative maturity, and zones are split into separate regional summaries.

"There are many good hybrids and varieties today. The challenge is finding those that fit your field and yield consistently," Bruce says.

Participating seed companies pay to enter, and they select the products to be tested. The same seed products are tested at every plot location within a region (usually six sites for corn and four for soybeans). At each location, all product tests are replicated three times for statistically valid comparisons.

In his test plots, Fathauer faithfully records each hybrid and variety as his twin sons, Wes and Will, and father, Dave, load the planter for the next round of test strips.

Leaving the plot until last was never really an option, he says. "We want to learn the most we can. Yield equals profitability, and that’s what’s needed to keep us around another generation."

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