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Use the Right Hybrid at the Right Rate to Improve Your Bottom Line

Selecting seed that best matches the soil is a management decision that can make a 40- to 50-bushel-per-acre difference in yield without increasing input costs.

According to Iowa State University research, selecting seed that best matches the soil is a management decision that can make a 40- to 50-bushel-per-acre difference in yield without increasing input costs. 

Yet, for some, selecting the hybrid that will perform best in a field is about as easy as predicting what color of gumball will drop out of a vending machine. 

“It can be very difficult for you to make a hybrid decision, because there are a lot of options out there,” says Joe Lauer, a professor and corn agronomist at the University of Wisconsin Extension. “There are a number of ways to grow corn, but you have to remember that the hybrid decision you make is also going to dictate your management style.”

Each year the Extension tests approximately 550 different corn hybrids from 50 companies – a number that has grown significantly since it began corn trials in the early 1970s. “We get only about 30% of the hybrids commercially sold in Wisconsin,” he says. 

Jim Rouse, who is with Iowa State University’s agronomy department, says they routinely test 250 to 300 hybrids each year. “That’s a subset of what’s available,” he notes.

Besides the myriad choices, varieties are cycling through much faster than they have in the past. “A hybrid that was long-lived used to be about three to five years,” says Lauer. “Now, it’s more like one to three years.”

Deepening a Partnership

Taking the lead in planting for his family’s Monticello, Iowa, farm, Ben Hogan wanted not only to make better seed choices but also to use variable-rate on that seed to optimize the investment. 

“Prescriptions seemed like a good fit to maximize the potential of that seed in our varying soils,” he says.

Blending data with the power of analysis and insight to achieve those goals meant deepening his more than 10-year relationship with Mycogen Seeds commercial agronomist Jeff Housman.

“I’m not comfortable enough with the information to know what to look for. However, I do know that if I don’t utilize the data, it’s just a guess,” Hogan says.

Housman says he is “able to take the data on Ben’s fields, analyze it, and dig down deep to get a better understanding of hybrid performance. Through that analysis, we’re putting the seed in the right spot,” he says. “We’re pushing areas that can take it and lightening up on the areas that can’t. It’s all about bringing value to Ben and the farm.”

Strengthening that relationship between the grower and the Mycogen Seeds agronomist is at the center of the precision agronomy program, which is enabled by John Deere’s integrated solutions and is available to customers across the Dow AgroSciences seed brands.

“During trying economic times, it’s important to focus on the farmer and make the right recommendations for genetics and planting rates to match return on investment,” says Housman. 

The two men are also taking advantage of a feature unique to the program. “It has a place where we can scout and take pictures if we see something unique in a field,” says Housman. “It’s a great tool to document issues right away in a central location.” 

With the capabilities of Deere’s Wireless Data Transfer, Hogan is now able to better manage his data. 

“I always did a good job of getting the data off of the combine and into the computer, but there were years it didn’t get transferred from the planter,” he says. “Transferring data wirelessly has made that process seamless.”

Yet, both men admit there was a bit of angst in turning that task over to the technology. “Jeff lives 90 minutes away, so I worried about how I was going to get the prescriptions,” says Hogan. “I needed to trust that the technology would deliver the information when I needed it. Luckily, I have never had an issue.”

Back To Basics

The piece of iron delivering that seed to the soil is a key component in implementing Hogan’s goals. In 2015, he added a John Deere MaxEmerge planter to his machinery lineup, which included the ability to variable-rate seed.

“We started with ensuring that Ben was correctly setting up the planter and following through with proper execution. Precision was a natural progression as we moved forward for efficiency and better selection and placement of hybrids,” Housman says.

“I purposely bought a planter with the ability to variable-rate knowing that was the direction I eventually wanted to take my planting,” says Hogan. “Anywhere I can drop my population yet raise my yield, I’ll do it. A low-population strategy means using only flex-ear hybrids that provide consistent yields at those lower populations.”

Closely evaluating soil types across the 2,600 acres that would be planted to corn was also a critical step in the process. 

“Some of my fields are pure sand; others go from pure sand to really heavy clay,” says Hogan. “That change can happen in one pass over a field.”

Based on past data and the way varieties performed on Hogan’s soils, Housman created three productivity zones – low, medium, and high. He adjusted populations according to those zones.

“Ben’s fields were segmented based on soil type, environment, and management practices,” he says.

Housman also reviews results from various data trials, specifically analyzing planting conditions, soil textures, and agronomic practices to draw insights. 

“I pay close attention to how varieties have performed within specific soil environments, as well as how the seed performed at different populations,” he notes, emphasizing that it’s not all about what works best in the test plots. “It’s what works best in each farmer’s situation,” he says.

Hogan once used a flat seeding rate of 35,000 seeds per acre for corn. When rates were adjusted to match zones, populations ranged from 23,000 on lighter, sandier ground to 34,000 on better soils. Ten different hybrids were planted with an average cost of $100 per acre for seed. 

While the main benefit of variable-rate seed technology comes in precisely matching seed to soil, the potential is also there to trim seed costs.

“For me, it’s a savings tool,” says Hogan. “I know I’m saving money on seed costs.”

For example, if Hogan can cut his populations back by 2,000 seeds per acre, he’d save about $6 per acre. Trial blocks of variable populations were placed in fields to understand yield potential in each field with the various seeding rates.

Now that the zones are set, they are starting to dig deeper into the genetics and understand how they perform in different areas of a field, in different environments, and in different farm practices, such as a corn-and-soybean rotation or corn-on-corn rotation.

“It lets us get down to a more micro level on how a product performs in a field rather than a macro level. It helps us develop a baseline of how products should be planted,” says Housman. “Not everything can be harvested at the same time. You have to put a balance in there between hybrids with top end yield and some that need late-season intactness and defensiveness. I help create genetic diversity for a balance of products to spread that risk.”

Evaluate Your planting Plan

While Hogan is seeing a positive result from the precision ag practices he and Housman are putting in place, convincing other farmers to use the technology still faces barriers.

“The reality is, only the progressive farmers with soil variability are, in fact, using variable-rate seeding,” says Jason Webster, field agronomist and central Illinois farmer. “I think it’s low mainly because it has been difficult to define management zones and then create prescriptions easily and quickly. We are also behind in defining spatial variability. In order for variable-rate seeding to be successful, this is a must-know.”

As more growers realize the value of variable-rate seeding, Housman believes the agronomist’s role will continue to evolve.

“In order to bring that return on investment, it will push the agronomist’s role closer to the grower,” he says. “It’s that closeness that will help the grower make better decisions in the field and improve efficiencies.” 

A Contrary View

When it comes to varying seeding rates, Joe Lauer has a different perspective.

“If you can tell me what the weather is going to be next year, I can tell you exactly what the optimal rate is,” says the professor and corn agronomist at University of Wisconsin Extension. “It takes somewhere between 10 and 20 years to predict how different parts of a field are going to perform.” 

However, he believes there is an opportunity to manage plant populations based on soil types, but he says it’s contingent on the elevation of those fields.

“For example, we know that on sandy soil, the optimal population will be different than what it would be on silt loam,” he says. “Keep in mind, with all of this, the plant population response in corn is what we call very broad-shouldered. You can probably be within 95% of the optimum. What I mean by optimum is economic optimum in a range of about 8,000 to 10,000 plants.”

The plant population that gives the maximum yield at the Extension’s major research facility in Arlington is 38,000 plants per acre. 

“The optimal population (or the economic optimum where you take into account cost of seed and density) is 34,000 plants per acre,” Lauer says. “The point where we are within 95% of the maximum yield is 30,000 plants per acre. That’s an 8,000-plant swing from maximum yield to the economic optimum and still within 95% of our yield down around 30,000 plants per acre.”

Because no two years are alike, those numbers change each year. “I think people are making much ado about a relatively small thing. There are certainly optimums,” he says. “Each hybrid is different and has an optimal population. There is a variety of things that affect what that optimal population is going to be.”

Because he believes it’s a real challenge to variable-rate seed, he advises that you pick what you think is going to be the optimal population rate for that field.

“Plant the whole field at that optimal rate. Except down the center of the field, make one round and increase the population about 10%,” says Lauer. 

For example, he says if you think the field will do well at 32,000 plants per acre, use that rate for the entire field. 

“Then take one pass up and back and plant at 35,000,” Lauer says. “See if you can pick that up on a yield map. If you do, then next year adjust and maybe go up to 34,000. We know that the optimum population is going up over time, but it probably varies by field and soil type. That’s one way to quickly test in your field in any particular year.” 

Seed Selection Principles

 As long as you stick to the five principles below, says Joe Lauer, University of Wisconsin professor and corn agronomist, you can make a good decision in selecting hybrids.

1. Use multilocation data. “Use information from multiple areas to evaluate grain yield, grain moisture, and standability,” he says. “Begin with trials that are closest to you. Compare hybrids with similar maturities (usually within about a 2% range) in grain moisture.”

Many growers, he says, don’t necessarily do that. “They look at their own on-farm trials and make decisions from there. The trouble is, they are losing out on a lot of good information from other parts of the country.” 

2. Look for consistency. “If a hybrid falls down somewhere and doesn’t do very well, try to find out why,” Lauer says. “Was there a disease problem? Was there a tillage issue or a soil type that made it go down?”

3. Pay attention to cost. “It’s difficult to find a hybrid that is going to do better than 10 to 12 bushels above the average next year,” he says. “The best you can really expect to gain is about 8 to 10 bushels above the average. Those extra bushels have to be used to pay for that more expensive seed. Sometimes it just doesn’t pencil out.”

He tells growers who are comparing two hybrids with a $50 to $100 difference in price per bag that they must be cautious when choosing the more expensive hybrid. “That’s a big change from what we used to say at Extension, but price differences weren’t as great then,” says Lauer.

4. Be sure the hybrid stands on its own for performance. “Just because a hybrid is a high performer doesn’t mean it’s going to shine year after year,” he says.

5. Buy traits you need. “Companies are forcing farmers to buy things like a hybrid with a rootworm trait when, in many management situations, it’s really not needed. That trait can cost an extra $75 a bag,” says Lauer. “The cost is hard to make up when you won’t see a yield response. Remember, too, that transgenic traits don’t add to yield; rather, they protect yield. Yet, for many farmers, being able to sleep at night is important, and these traits work very effectively in protecting yield.” 

For more tips on turning data into decisions, download our Precision Decisions e-book.

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