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Consider These Four Seed Decision Components

Planting a range of maturities helps spread agronomic risk

With many crops still out in the field due to soggy conditions, it’s hard to think about seed selection for 2019. However, companies are ramping up their sales efforts this fall. Here are some questions and considerations to ponder over 2019 seed decisions. 

1. With consolidation occurring in the seed industry, are germplasm bases narrowing? 

No. This concern is rooted in the 1970 southern corn leaf blight epidemic. During that year, farmers planted 85% of U.S. cornfields to one type of corn, called Texas cytoplasmic male sterile (Tcms) corn. “T-cytoplasm used to produce seed of many different hybrids without detasseling but carried with it susceptibility to this disease,” recalls Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois Extension agronomist. This was fixed by seed companies going back to detasseling, he says.

Using T-cytoplasm involved only a tiny amount of DNA, so that didn’t really narrow the genetic base of hybrids, says Nafziger. Still, it howed a possible negative consequence of having only a few genes in common, so this example was stretched to raise concerns about having “too narrow” a genetic base, says Nafziger. “Some hybrids have a short commercial life, but that happens regardless of who did the breeding, and hardly demonstrates a larger problem of lack of diversity,” he says. 

2. Farmers Business Network (FBN) has made quite a splash by gathering data that shows a number of hybrids and varieties that are branded differently by companies share the same genetics.

FBN calls it relabeling. (The October issue of Successful Farming magazine contains a story on the subject starting on page 36.) 

Nafziger thinks that despite’s FBN’s alarm about relabeling, this may not be as big as a factor as some think. “Casting ‘relabeling’ as a nefarious activity is sort of an old rerun,” he says. He thinks many farmers know that different brands between companies can share the same genetics. “Seed companies do a lot to promote the care with which they produce, handle, and treat seeds,” he says.

Nafziger questions why farmers would want to give up a system and seed seller they know for one they don’t. “I’ve often made the comment that I don’t care how many names a hybrid I plant is sold under, as long as it’s a really good hybrid in my field,’ he says. “We know that some closely related hybrids perform quite differently, and it’s difficult to say with any certainty how much relatedness is too much when it comes to corn hybrids and their performance in the field.”

3. Plant a range of maturities, says Mark Licht, Iowa State University Extension agronomist.

As a rule, longer-maturing hybrids and varieties have more yield potential than shorter ones. Still, aiming for the longest-maturing hybrids and varieties could backfire in case of an event like an early fall frost. Planting a range of maturities helps spread agronomic risk. In some cases, FBN has found wide relative maturity differences in soybean varieties sharing the same genetics. In one case, one soybean variety had a Relative Maturity Group .5 rating, while another variety sharing the same genetics had a Relative Maturity Group rating of .9.

A difference this wide between two varieties sharing the same germplasm is uncommon, says Licht. “It can happen, but if you have .3 to .5 maturity differences in soybeans and three- to five-day maturity differences in corn, most often you will have different genetic bases.”  

One way farmers may ensure they plant different genetics is to select hybrids and varieties from within a company, says Kevin Cavanaugh, director of research for Beck’s Hybrids. “If a company has a 110-day corn product and a 112-day product, the 112-day product is definitely going to be later maturing, he says.

Another option is to buy three different hybrids or varieties from three major genetics providers. “In corn, there would be little (genetic) crossover from the Bayer to the Corteva to the Syngenta platform,” says Licht.  “With soybeans, it’s not as easy because they have more genetics coming out of the same companies.” 

Still, major breeders tend not to sell genetics outside of their flagship brands, he says. 

Conversely, buying from several brands can nix price savings farmers can glean from volume discounts. “If you buy three different soybean varieties and three different corn hybrids from one company, you will not have any genetic overlap,” says Licht. 

4. Study, study, study. 

“The best way to know the performance of a corn hybrid or a soybean variety is to look at as much data as you can, whether it's from a university, a state testing program, FIRST trials, or through your local co-op or seed dealer,” says Licht. Reviewing as much data as possible, especially if it's geographically close, gives farmers the best idea of how it will perform, he adds. 

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