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Kissin' corn cousins?

Several years ago, Wayne Siela, Vinton, Iowa, was harvesting corn. He knew two hybrids out of the package he planted that year shared the same 108-day relative maturity. Yet, he was struck by other similarities throughout the year.

"They were the same height," he says. "They grew the same, tasseled and pollinated at the same time, and yielded the same." The only difference seemed to be that the hybrids came from two different companies.


Growing concentration of germplasm sources by seed companies raises the question of similar genetics stretching across hybrids and varieties from different companies.

"It appears there are more companies getting germplasm from a common source," says Dean Oestreich, chairman of Pioneer Hi-Bred International.

The potential of having kissin' cousins in the corn hybrids you select complicates the time-tested strategy of planting several different corn hybrids across a farm.

"Farmers plant a number of varieties in many cases to protect against specific environmental conditions that would place them at a disadvantage if they planted just one," says Oestreich. "It's like a portfolio. They want to have it perform under a number of different conditions."

Just because genetics are similar doesn't mean growth patterns and yield will be similar between hybrids. Processing and grading can create field performance differences, even with similar genetics.

Yet, there's always the lingering feelings farmers have regarding similar genetics between hybrids. "Farmers I meet will tell me, 'I bought hybrid A and hybrid B, and they looked very much the same,'" says Oestreich.

That's particularly disconcerting if the parent of a hybrid unknowingly has susceptibility to a pest or disease, says Dean Mohr, a Pioneer attorney.

"An individual may buy three hybrids from three different companies thinking they are different," he says. "If an inbred has this susceptibility to disease and is used in all three hybrids, the farmer can get hit in all three cases."

There's another issue at work here. Sometimes, seed brokers sell a company's developed variety to another company that sells the variety under a different brand name. This is legal under the Federal Seed Act (FSA) and under seed laws that some states have.

However, farmers are protected by an FSA provision stating the original variety must be stated on the seed tag or label.

Thus, two companies could label the variety brand names of AAA and BBB. If the variety code is 1111, though, the seed label or tag would have to state it in both cases.

"Presently, I believe most everyone would agree that FSA regulations allow a company to sell a product under a brand name," says Mohr. "It also requires a company to identify the variety on the seed label. There needs to be a distinction between the brand name and the variety."

Remember that 1970s ad jingle, "Look for the Union Label?"

Well, nix the union part and you'll find good advice for today. Look for the seed variety on the label or tag of each hybrid you plant. There are some states where the label will state 'Variety Not Stated.' That's legal. However, there are many cases where the label will state the actual variety.

"I look at the label," says Larry Jons, Central City, Iowa. Knowing that varieties are different is important as he selects the three hybrids he plants across his 180 corn acres.

Knowing that hybrids are different is crucial on his farm, as it consists of seven soils types. Since some varieties fit certain soil types better than others, having genetic diversity is paramount in matching variety to soil type.

A label only goes so far in cluing in farmers about a variety's genetics. It doesn't reveal the genetic makeup behind each variety or any resulting similarities.

"The worst thing you can do is go to four different companies and say, 'Give me your best hybrid,'" says Chuck Lee, head of Syngenta's corn product line. They may be each company's best hybrid, but genetics and growing patterns could be similar between them.

"Achieving diversity with corn hybrids is a lot like it is with investments," says Lee. Investing in one stock could achieve the next Google. But it also could produce a dud destined for the penny stock sheet.

Ditto for a hybrid that tops the yield charts one year and bombs the next year.

"No one has the stomach for that much volatility," says Jim Rouse, program manager of the Iowa Crop Improvement Association's corn and soybean tests. "That's what requires farmers to spread risk over multiple corn hybrids."

Lee advises farmers to carefully eye hybrid product descriptions. "If product descriptions are identical for two products from two different companies, that's a key in revealing how similar they may be," says Lee.

Other ways farmers can lower the odds of planting similar hybrids is to plant a range of relative maturities. Hybrids sharing the same relative maturity can differ in growth and performance, Lee notes. However, it's more likely that hybrids with different relative maturities will have different genetic backgrounds.

A good relationship with a seed representative is also crucial, says Lee. That's a cue that Ben Fehl, LaPorte City, Iowa, has taken.

"There are so many choices out there, it's hard to make a decision," he says. "I put trust in my seed dealer to make it for me."

Fehl also regularly works in new hybrids as a way to keep his planting lineup diverse. "The new stuff is new for a reason," he says. "You have to consistently have better yields, and new hybrids are a way to do it."

Several years ago, Wayne Siela, Vinton, Iowa, was harvesting corn. He knew two hybrids out of the package he planted that year shared the same 108-day relative maturity. Yet, he was struck by other similarities throughout the year.

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