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Drought-year seed-buying tips

Jeff Caldwell 09/25/2012 @ 9:14am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

Thinking about what corn varieties you'll plant next year? You may want to reconsider how much stock you put into this year's variety performance data if you're planning on using it in making your seed purchase decisions, experts say.

This year's test plot data will likely be far from the most reliable, mostly because of the drought that ravaged much of the U.S. this growing season. So, how do you make use of that hit-and-miss data in an informed seed purchase decision?

"Test plot information this year can still be very useful but take precautions. Results from single on-farm strip tests should not be used to make a decision on adoption of a treatment or variety," says Ohio State University Extension corn specialist Peter Thomison. "Even replicated data from a single test site should be avoided, especially if the site was characterized by abnormal growing conditions."

How much you use this year's test plot data you use in your seed-buying decisions depends a lot on the traits you're looking for. Obviously, drought tolerance will show up fairly well in this year's tests. But, even that's not always as cut-and-dried as it might seem in a year when a single weather variable dominated, like this year's drought.

"If one assumes that the varied stress conditions affected test plots uniformly within a field, then interpretation of test plot data becomes an issue. This issue can be especially relevant when evaluating results of a hybrid and cultivar performance trials severely affected by drought," Thomison says. "Did a hybrid yield well under drought stress because it genuinely possesses some drought resistance or because it 'escaped' the impact of high temperatures and drought by flowering before or after the worst of the stress? If it was the latter, then the hybrid's superior performance may be of limited value under different drought conditions in the future."

It's because of this potential variability that some farmers say they've avoided using plot data from this year's crop altogether. "I normally refuse to order much until after I can look at how our stuff yielded, but I'm not going to pay much attention to this year and call it a hopeful rare one," says Agriculture.com Farm Business Talk frequent contributor infire.

But, if you don't want to rule out this year's yield data in your seed-buying decisions for next year, you can still factor it in. Just do so in a different context, says Iowa State University Extension corn agronomist Roger Elmore. This year's context should partially comprise the wide window of yield variability.

"Some of these fields are pulling in 220 [bushels/acre] and some pulling in 40. Look at the hybrids you're aiming at and how it does in both environments. This would tell you how stable a variety is across diverse environments," Elmore says. "Look at the good, bad and the ugly. You really want one that performs best in all environments."

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