Ron Sloan wants a racehorse that will get up and go on his consistent Illinois soils. Ricky Belk wants a mule that is stubborn enough to kick out a yield despite Mississippi's erratic weather patterns and variable soil types.
Shopping for corn hybrids has always been a matter of striking a balance between needs, wants and what is available. But never has the marketplace been so cluttered with choices, as rival companies join hands and stack traits into a dizzying array of combinations. The sheer number of hybrids is staggering as companies bring next-generation trait packages to market and bundle pesticide products into the seed decision-making process.
"The good news is it's easy to find good hybrids today,” says Jim Rouse, Iowa State University agronomist and executive director of the Iowa Crop Improvement Association. "The challenge is finding hybrids that fit each field and that yield consistently well across a diverse set of conditions.”
For Sloan, who farms with his sons in a 50-mile radius around Assumption, Ill., it's not about identifying which lines did best during the past year, it's about anticipating which lines will do best next year. That requires a lot of homework, and Sloan looks at every piece of data he can get his hands on.
"Hybrid selection is the most important thing we do in corn production,” Sloan says. "We get one chance a year to put the right seed in the right place, and I want the information to back up my selections.”
Planting a test plot on his own farm gives him a firsthand look at new materials. He also grew seed corn this year, but both provide mere snapshots.
"I lose track of how many seed salesmen march onto the farm saying they won some seed trial,” he says. "I favor unbiased trials put on by banks or universities.” His favorite source of information is F.I.R.S.T. (Farmer's Independent Research of Seed Technologies), which evaluates more than a thousand seed products in hundreds of trials each year across the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states.
If your favorite data report doesn't include district or regional averages, look at it with some skepticism, suggests Iowa State's Rouse. Data from a single location is a measure of the yields produced by the interaction of genetics with the environment (soil types, soil conditions, weather, nutrients, pests, pathogens and a host of other factors that can impact the expression of genetic yield potential). The only factors in this equation that you know for sure next year will be soil type(s) and the genetics you choose. Because of this, you can't expect the results from a single location in one season to be duplicated in another season.
Belk keeps his eye on new genetics and tries a new number or two each year on limited acreage. "Everybody every year has something that will beat the tried and true if conditions are perfect,” says the Minter City, Miss., farmer.
"But our weather conditions are so erratic that we don't know what perfect is. I want a workhorse that will perform year in and year out, and I'll give up some yield to get it. This year, my best corn is on my worst land. You can't figure on hitting home runs down here … you have to aim to get on base.”
Belk used eight different hybrids in 2008, attempting to match hybrid qualities to pest threats and soil conditions. Hybrids triple-stacked with defensive traits went on continuous corn acres.
Build on the basics. Sloan spreads his risk across six to eight different numbers—both protecting himself from pollination problems and orchestrating harvest by planting maturities ranging from 105 days to 115 days.
"Yield tops my want list,” Sloan says. "But it has to come with good roots, stalk quality and overall standability.”
Traits, in Sloan's opinion, are more about convenience. "With the right management, conventional corn can haul in just as much. But it's hard to do as we push across more acres.”
Wayne Fithian, business lead product manager for Syngenta, agrees that a hybrid is only as good as its base agronomic package, regardless of the traits it carries. "Agronomic characteristics and technology trait packages are both important,” he says. "Growers need to take advantage of what technology traits have to offer, but they shouldn't give up something to get it.
"Focus on the agronomic issues—the primary yield-limiting factors inherent to the farm—and find the hybrids that answer those problems. Then, look at how those hybrids stood up regionally (50- to 100-mile radius). If you don't have more than one year of local yield data, consider performance over a wider geographic area,” Fithian says. "Because a wider geographic area encompasses many different growing conditions, it improves your ability to predict a product's stability over locations and years.
"Finding a balance between technology traits and agronomic characteristics is often a field-by-field decision.”
There's no shortage of hybrids on the market, but widespread sharing and licensing of germplasm means fewer different top-performing hybrids. Choosing hybrids for genetic diversity may be good management, but there is a chance you could buy two hybrids with different brands and names that contain the same genetics.
Tom Burrus of Burrus Brothers and Associated Growers in Arenzville, Ill., says his company markets hybrids in genetic families to avoid any mix-up for growers.
Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., is also instituting a new numbering system to make it easier to identify the base genetics found in hybrids, says Bill Belzer, corn marketing manager for Pioneer. "Growers today are looking at a portfolio of hybrids with traits that match to fields in specific ways,” he adds. "Perhaps choosing hybrids isn't the right term anymore. We're prescribing them.”
Key steps in corn hybrid selection:
- Select hybrids that feature maturity ratings that are appropriate for your region or farm circumstances.
- Spread production risk by planting a range of hybrid maturities.
- Choose hybrids that have a range of genetics.
- Choose hybrids with consistently high yields across a number of locations or years.
- Select hybrids that contain resistances or tolerances to the diseases and insects that trouble your farm.
You can e-mail Pam Henderson Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.