How to sleuth for 2021 seed

July is normally the time when companies start pitching their latest and greatest products for the next year. 

In 2020, though, COVID-19 will likely nix farmers sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on wagons viewing plots, early ordering 2021 seed, and hitting the buffet line at field days. 

“The way we interact with customers will change a bit,” says Lance Tarochione, an Asgrow/DeKalb technical agronomist. “We are just interacting in different ways, doing more over the phone. We don’t shake hands with customers. I have been in fields with farmers, but social distance out of respect to their health.” 

Still, farmers need to start making steely-eyed seed decisions for 2021. Seed selection is one of the biggest decisions farmers make every year, says Joe Lauer, a University of Wisconsin Extension agronomist. 

“We’ve seen a 70-bushel (per acre) difference between the top and bottom hybrids (in the same maturity zone) in our yield trials,” he says. “Even if the difference is only half that, that’s a big swing economically.”

Here are some ideas to help farmers pick the best seed for 2021. 

Stress Tolerance

Dale Hicks had a saying when he was a University of Minnesota Extension agronomist: “The four most important factors in picking a corn hybrid are yield, yield, yield, yield, and if there’s a fifth factor, it would be yield, too.”

Still, stressors – whether they be weather or pests – have a way of smacking into yield potential. 

“Stress-proofing corn against ‘normal’ weather is the biggest challenge corn growers face,” says Bob Nielsen, Purdue University Extension agronomist. Lately, he says normal has been anything but normal. Still Nielsen defines normal this way: 

“An unpredictable number of unpredictable extreme weather events, each occurring unpredictably, with unpredictable severity.”  

Nielsen says farmers should work with their seed dealers to identify hybrids that can best tolerate stress.

“This can easily be a 30- to 40-bushel (per acre) decision based on the resiliency of a hybrid,” Nielsen says. 

Stressors, though, vary in form and intensity. Insect infestations are often easier to predict than others, says Tarochione. 

“With corn-on-corn, it’s safe to say you will have some rootworm pressure,” says Tarochione. In that case, tools like insect-resistant traits or soil-applied insecticides can help deter corn rootworm.

Not so with a windborne disease like Southern rust. If Southern rust infests a field and a farmer does not apply a timely fungicide, a hybrid with lower yield potential but higher resistance to Southern rust will yield well, he says.

The rub with a disease like Southern rust is that it blows in from, well, the south. Its movement varies from year to year. 

“So, if you plant a lower-yielding product with high resistance to Southern rust, there is no guarantee you will have the disease,” says Tarochione. “If it doesn’t come, you will just have lower yields.”

Just because a hybrid is stacked with disease resistance doesn’t mean it will clip yield potential, though.  

“It’s a product-by-product assessment,” Tarochione says. “Breeders have worked hard to develop some high-yielding products with excellent disease resistance or tolerance.” 

Stress Tolerance

There’s a reason why farmers plant full-season hybrids at the start of the season. A yield gap still exists between long- and short-maturing hybrids.

“It is narrowing, but the gap is still there,” says Tarochione.

Shorter-maturing hybrids may still yield well. “We saw that last year, when farmers who switched down from 112-day corn to 105-day corn were happy with the performance of the shorter-maturing hybrids,” says Tarochione. “It was a good year for late-planted corn.”

Typically, though, a full-season hybrid will yield more than a short-season hybrid in a side-by-side comparison, says Tarochione. 

“It is difficult for a hybrid that uses less sunlight and resources during the growing season to match a product that uses more sunlight and resources during the year,” he says. “The extra yield of full-season corn is typically more to offset drying costs associated with it.”

This doesn’t always happen, though, as drying arrangements may differ between farmers. “Some farmers pay 4¢ per point for drying while others pay less than 1¢ (per point), so it depends on your own drying situation,” he says. “The price of a commodity makes a big difference. It is easier to offset drying costs when corn prices are $4 instead of $3 per bushel.”


Many farmers lament rising input costs paired with declining commodity prices. Still, they have a point with seed costs. 

Ray Gaesser
Ray Gaesser
“In the early ’90s, seed prices averaged $20 to $25 per acre,” says Lauer. “Now, costs are over $100 per acre (in states like Iowa and Illinois). Much of this has to do with traited and bioengineered corn.”

Correspondingly, though, yields have risen during this time frame. U.S. trend line corn yields have increased from around 115 bushels per acre in the early 1990s to the low 170s now. 

“Even now with tight margins, farmers will invest in seed technologies if they are reasonably confident that the extra cost will increase net income or decrease yield risk,” says Ray Gaesser, a Corning, Iowa, farmer.

Still, it’s a tough choice. 

“Some growers fear that if they buy a higher priced product and do not have a favorable environment, there is no value to that extra yield potential,” says Tarochione. “So, it’s a bit of a balancing act. 

Thus, Tarochione tells farmers with whom he works:

  If you can save a dollar and not reduce your yield, that is a dollar earned. 

  If you save a dollar and lose one third of a bushel of corn priced at $3, you broke even. 

  If you lose more than one third of a bushel of corn, you lost money trying to save a dollar.

Objection to price is often rooted in the number of traits that accompany hybrids and varieties. 

Dustin Bowling
Dustin Bowling
“We are seeing a pushback on trait packages, especially on (below-ground) rootworm ones,” says Dustin Bowling, western agronomy manager for AgriGold. 

However, this decision hinges on problems in specific fields. “If corn rootworm is an issue in fields, the greatest return on investment still lies with a trait package for above- and below-ground protection,” Bowling says. 

If not, conventional hybrids are a route that farmers are taking, Bowling says. That’s partly due to non-GMO premiums, he adds.  

Expense is the other. “When you look at the chemical industry and the amount of generic products coming off patent, growers can build a good herbicide package with conventional corn,” he says.  

Chris Hudson
Chris Hudson
“It depends on your pest pressure,” says Chris Hudson, who farms with father Curt near Crawfordsville, Indiana. Hudson planted non-GMO corn for the first time in 2019.

“The production costs were lower, and if we had pests, we had ways we could manage them,” he says. 

Some farmers have backed off on traits in recent years, agrees Jon Zuk, a WinField United agronomist. That’s particularly the case with corn rootworm. Some farmers with whom Zuk works nixed a rootworm trait and are instead using a soil-applied insecticide. Or, they’re risking planting hybrids without a rootworm-resistant trait and no soil-applied insecticide on rotated acres.

“I have also worked with growers who chose fewer traits in 2019 and moved up this year in the trait spectrum because they saw rootworm pressure and weren’t able to control it,” Zuk says. 

Jon Zuk
Jon Zuk
Zuk advises farmers to set out sticky traps in adjacent fields this summer to monitor rootworm beetle populations in order to predict and better control rootworm pressure in 2021. 

The decision really depends on the farmer, adds Tarochione. “If there is a $35 bag difference between SmartStax or Double Pro (above-ground insect protection) and they divide $35 by 2.2 acres, that’s a little over a $15-per-acre difference,” he says. “Some look at it as cheap insurance against rootworm. Others would rather keep the $15 per acre. We produce what the customer wants.”

Relax ... a bit

Yes, seed is one of the most important decisions farmers make each year. Still, take care to balance agronomic needs with price. Concentrating on areas with a bigger payoff can help boost your bottom line more, says David Widmar, cofounder of Agricultural Economic Insights. 

Twenty-year averages from Illinois and Indiana farms show about 25% of corn and soybean farm expenses are linked to seed, fertilizer, and crop protection. 

“I think the industry spends more than 80% of its time talking about ways to save on fertilizer, seed, and crop protection expense,” he says. Farmers though, may incur larger cost savings minus the risk of lower revenues by targeting expenses like cash rent payments, machinery costs, and family living expenses, he says. 

It’s tough. 

Sometimes, this includes paring back on cash rent or letting some farms go. Ditto for machinery if analysis reveals a farm is over capacity in this area. 

“There’s some great data from Kansas State (University) that showssome wildly different machinery expenses per acre for similarly sized farms,” says Widmar.

Paring back family living expenses is another area that can have a large payoff, says Widmar. 

“That is an area where it can be difficult to make some cuts, but there are some big improvements that can be made,” points out Widmar.

Price transparency

Farmers Business Network, a San Carlos, California, firm, disrupted the seed industry in 2017 with a report that showed a significant amount of corn hybrids and soybean varieties share the same genetics. As a result, FBN officials said farmers may be overpaying for seed.

Since then, FBN developed a seed sourcing tool, Seed Finder, that collects crowd-sourced data to enable its members to make seed decisions. It provides performance, price, and transparency on 5,660 seed brands from over 200 seed firms, says Charles Baron, FBN cofounder. 

“It looks at the ROI (return on investment) of each seed product and helps farmers select seed based on economic merits as well as agronomic merits,” he adds. 

“In some cases, it has opened our eyes,” says Ben Pederson, a Lake Mills, Iowa, farmer. “It’s helped with the metric of the price of seed per bushel produced.”

It’s always been possible to find if different brands of hybrids and varieties shared the same genetics, says Lance Tarochione, an Asgrow/DeKalb technical agronomist. “Before FBN, there was a whole subculture of people trying to do that,” he says. “There’s just more transparency today than there used to be.

“There are some difficult conversations if a customer believes he or she can buy the same genetics in another bag for $20 less,” Tarochione adds. “In other cases, though, there are service factors, risk mitigation factors, and relationships that enter into the decision.” 

For example, one company may support its products better than others, he says. 

“Seed is not a commodity like potash,” says Tarochione.

How to acclimate to the COVID-19 era

Farmers can ready themselves to the new environment of farming in the COVID-19 era by familiarizing themselves with technologies like Zoom or other communication platforms, says Jeff Cecil, who leads crop protection marketing for Syngenta. That’s because it can enable them to digitally communicate in a one-on-one manner.  

“Farmers are a lot more tech savvy than most people understand,” says Cecil. “We’ve had live chats with customers, where we can go out and make a video of what is going on their fields, and then play it back to them and talk about it.”

COVID-19 may also accelerate adoption of existing technologies that farmers were already starting to integrate into their operations. “I think a lot of this was happening already, with the level of robots and precision agriculture,” says Mike Miille, chief executive officer of Joyn Bio. 

Although robotic technology is being evaluated in the Midwest, it already fills a niche in fruit and vegetable production in states like California because it helps minimize human exposure to coronavirus, Miille points out.. 

Accessing labor was already difficult for farmers and agricultural input dealers before COVID-19, says Mike DiPaola, North American general manager of sales for
Taranis, a firm that offers imagery analysis and artificial intelligence. Digital tools like imagery combined with artificial intelligence can form “digital labor” that can help ease labor concerns, says DiPaola.

Taranis offers UAV, aerial, and satellite imagery that’s coupled with artificial intelligence. This combination can identify and aggregate visual images of farmers’ fields to enable agronomists, farmers, and input dealers to detect, assess and develop a plan to quickly counter crop threats, points out DiPaola. 

“It doesn’t replace agronomists, but agronomists who use these tools will flourish over agronomists who do not,” says DiPaola.

Speak up

Lance Tarochione
Lance Tarochione
Don’t clam up when ordering seed. “Farmers should let seed suppliers know what their hot button issues are,” says Lance Tarochione, an Asgrow/DeKalb technical agronomist. “It’s been a tough year for emergence, and there are excellent hybrids with mediocre emergence. If a grower has that particular bias, they should let the seed supplier know.” 

Ditto for technologies you don’t use. “A dealer may launch into a conversation about variable-rate seeding, only to find out the farmer does not have the equipment to variable rate seed,” he says.

How COVID-19 will change business

COVID-19 won’t put a standstill to farmers doing business with seed firms and other agricultural companies. It will boost these developments, though. 

  • Digital field tours. Field days are a popular way for seed companies to showcase their products. Due to COVID-19, more may morph into virtual field days. 

“Golden Harvest just had its first virtual plot tour in May of newly emerged corn, and it had great attendance,” says Eric Boeck, who heads marketing for Syngenta Seeds. “I think it COVID-19) is just going to drive more creativity in being a trusted adviser resource for farmers.”

“Today, a farmer could literally take out his or her cell phone, use our app, and hear a scientist explain the key attributes of the product in a self-guided tour,” says John Raines, chief commercial officer for The Climate Corporation.

  • Online ordering. COVID-19 has given online ordering an opening for input buying and selling.

“We had a record pace for the first quarter that ended in March,” says James Ferraro, vice president of Agrellus, a nationwide online marketplace that brings farmers and dealers together to buy and sell ag inputs.

“Product sales through the marketplace doubled from the first quarter of 2019 compared with the first quarter of 2020,” he says.

Sales particularly zoomed in March due to COVID-19, he says. “In general, requests (for online purchases) were up 60% in March overall (compared with March 2019),” he says. “But it accelerated when COVID-19 came along. In the period from March 10 until the end of March, compared with the same period in 2019, we saw a 225% increase in buying requests from farmers, which is pretty dramatic.”

  • Room preserved for traditional input ordering. Still, doing business face-to-face — provided precautions like social distancing are taken — will remain.  

“We’re not necessarily seeing a rapid move toward online purchasing in many product categories,” says Tim Glenn, executive vice president, chief commercial officer of Corteva Agriscience. “There are many ways to complete a transaction, but that trusted supplier relationship is critical. Especially when there’s market uncertainty, customers like to have a familiar relationship and long history with providers. We’re going to constantly evolve how we interact with customers, but I think that personal relationship will continue.”

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