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How to Make Sense of Your Seed Options

There are a plethora of choices when it comes to seed selection. Making sense of the options is critical to your bottom line.

Imagine you’re headed to the racetrack. Should you bet on the flashy racehorse that turns everyone’s head? Or do you choose the steady, reliable thoroughbred with solid odds for the daily double?

Now, focus your attention on racehorse and workhorse hybrids. You want to place the best hybrids on each acre, but you also want to save a few dollars when possible.

Typical is Wilton, Iowa, farmer Dave Walton. He’s a show-me-the-numbers type of guy. “I’m going to use whatever will make me the most money,” he says.

Like Walton, you probably want to save a few dollars without it costing you in the long run. Here are 8 items to examine to help you get the most bang for your buck before you lock in your seed purchases this fall.  

1. Yield

“I encourage farmers to look at yield,” says Mark Licht, Iowa State University Extension cropping systems agronomist. It’s common to look at straight yield potential, but it needs to be taken a step further and verified for consistent performance, he adds.

Examine more than one set of data. Licht encourages you to evaluate company data, public trials, co-op data, and your own data to get an idea of consistency across a geographic area. “Find a robust hybrid that is going to work across the entire area instead of in a specific environment,” says Licht.

Yield is the first priority for Bob Venner of Carroll, Iowa. Venner and his son, Scott, feed 5,000 head of cattle. A high percentage of their acres are corn, all of which they feed to cattle.

At the end of the day, they need bushels. “With our livestock operation, we can handle a little bit more moisture in the corn,” says Venner. “We put some up that are high moisture. If a really good hybrid will stand there, it’ll be the last thing we harvest. If it all goes to town, we look at it differently.”

For Walton, yield is important, but it’s not the final deciding factor. “Too many people get hung up on the yield rank,” says Walton. “But it’s the net dollars per acre that’s important.”

To determine net cost, Walton examines yield minus the drying cost. Most of the time, the full-season hybrids pay off. It’s not surprising to see a hybrid that’s ranked number one for yield drop to sixth on the net profit list due to drying time, he says.

2. Risk Management

“I look at maturity and grain drydown together. One can influence the other quite a bit,” says Licht. “Maturity and grain drydown can help you manage risk in a number of ways.”

The benefits of selecting a wide range of maturities include:

  • Staggering out pollination dates. This eliminates a stressful weather event striking the entire crop pollinating at the same time.
  • An entire crop won’t reach maturity at the same time.  

As a smaller operation, spreading the maturity dates isn’t a focus for Walton. His maturities generally range from 111 to 114 days.

“I tried to plant early corn to start harvest sooner, but I found that it couldn’t keep up with yield,” says Walton. With the extra yield, it was cheaper to buy propane to dry it. “That’s the luxury I have with a smaller operation,” he says.

“Another risk-management issue is looking at lodging and stability issues,” adds Licht. “If you can identify those that perform better in those situations and fields, it’s a way to manage that risk. You have to hedge your bets.”

3. Hybrid Selection

Racehorse hybrids are much less tolerant of pests and disease than workhorse hybrids, says Licht. Scouting availability and your management plan can help determine which will fit your operation best. While all hybrids should be scouted, racehorse hybrids will require additional scouting. If you don’t plan to spend much time scouting or spend money on in-season advanced management, select the workhorse hybrid, advises Licht.

The idea is that the workhorse hybrids plod along and always reach the finish line. Meanwhile, the racehorse has higher yield potential, but it might fizzle out.
By knowing the management plans and the environment the hybrid will be placed in, you can really tailor your needs, says Licht.

“The best hybrids are those that have high yield potential and don’t fall apart under less-than-ideal conditions,” says Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois Extension agronomist. “Not many producers are willing to give up a lot of yield potential to get safety, unless the field doesn’t support high yields.”

Companies know which hybrid will perform best in each environment, and Walton relies on their expertise placing the hybrids.

“Generally, the more progressive farmers are out there thinking about how hybrids are performing and working in their field,” says Licht.

Walton sticks with what works, but he isn’t afraid to try what’s coming next. He will try small quantities of new hybrids recommended by his seed adviser. If they perform well, he’ll add them into the rotation the following year.

Walton and Venner have their own plots for testing. When a trusted adviser suggests a new hybrid, they ask to see trial data. If it passes that test, the next step is to see how it performs in the plot.

When selecting soybean varieties, Walton makes sure it will fit in his chemical rotation plan. “I’m trying to push back the resistance,” Walton explains.

4. Performance

“I want standability,” says Venner. “Corn-on-corn creates more standability challenges for hybrids than corn following soybeans."

“If it yields really well but it’s on the ground, I don’t get the yield. In the end, it’s about the bottom dollar,” he adds. For him, that means including seed costs, herbicide applications, fertilizer costs, fungicide treatments, and other inputs that become necessary as Mother Nature throws her curveballs.

Venner tries to weed out weaker hybrids – ones that can’t handle as much disease pressure. He tends to select the hybrids that will perform for him year after year in varying conditions.  

5. Traits vs. Conventional

The seed companies are trying to play catch-up with conventional hybrids since interest in them has increased. There are farmers who want the best inexpensive corn, says Walton.

“I try to be smart about the technology I use,” says Walton. Most hybrids he plants include double stacks (herbicide resistance and ECB resistance). Walton views traits as a cheap form of insurance, but he only uses them when they make sense.

He doesn’t plant a hybrid with a corn rootworm-resistant trait in a field that was previously soybeans. “I don’t want to pay for it if I don’t have to,” he says.

Exceptions exist. “Genetics trump traits,” Walton says. If the best hybrid is rootworm-resistant, he’ll still plant it on soybean ground.

“There are benefits to having the traits,” says Licht. Traits have allowed you to manage your time and money more efficiently, he explains.

“Traits are increasingly an expectation,” says Nafziger. Think of refuge in a bag, drought tolerance in 2012, and insect and weed control – these all contribute to your ease of use.

There are situations where you could cut seed costs significantly, going from a highly traited hybrid to a conventional hybrid, says Licht. Those savings may not pay in the end when you consider changes to the management plan.  

“You have to account for a different herbicide program,” says Licht. “Typically those other herbicide programs come with a greater expense.”

Questions also exist about how yields stack up between conventional and traited hybrids. “There should be no difference,” says Licht. “Realistically, though, you are rarely able to find the conventional seed of the high-trait package.”

Because of that, there may be a switch in brand and genetics – you can’t always compare apple to apples, says Licht.  

6. Brand Loyalty

“It’s very important that you deal with seed company people you trust,” says Nafziger. “Seed company representatives are very in tune to earning that trust. That competitiveness, in turn, serves you very well.

“There’s a great deal of interest in matching hybrids to fields, especially those fields where high yields are less common,” says Nafziger. “Seed company personnel make it a point to learn about your fields and to suggest hybrids that help minimize your soil’s shortcomings.”

You have to be able to ask questions and get an honest answer, says Walton. “I’ve worked with some companies that try to sell me what they have instead of working with me to see what fits my operations,” he says. Those relationships don’t last.

There are benefits of having a close relationship with his seed company agronomist, says Venner. He relies on his adviser to answer in-season management questions and to give advice throughout the season.

7. Discounts

Company discounts exist for early pay, volume, and loyalty. While price is a contributing factor in seed decisions for Venner, it’s not the sole factor when it’s decision time. When applicable, Venner uses early pay and volume discounts. The selection process starts before harvest, and the decision is made shortly after harvest. The prepay due date decides the day, says Venner.

Walton accesses early pay savings, but’s he’s not a fan of the bundling services for discounts. “If the corn is good, it will pay for additional scouting,” he says.

There are a lot of good hybrids on the market, says Nafziger. “It’s not difficult to have a really good lineup. I don’t think companies are interested in price cutting without end. Farmers are willing to pay what it takes to get good performance. I think, over time, fewer people are paying less than the $300-per-bag cost for seed corn. Performance shouldn’t disappoint.”

8. Seeding Rates

Find the sweet spot for your seeding rate and stick to it. “People have backed off seeding rates, or at least we don’t hear as much about seeding at populations up into the 40,000s,” says Nafziger. “Both corn and seed prices have contributed to this, but some who have tried very high populations have found less response than expected.”

It’s rare to need more than 35,000 plants per acre to maximize yields, explains Nafziger. Price is another contributing factor. Couple expensive seed and less-than-ideal prices, and you start to realize how many seeds pay for that last bushel.

No matter which hybrids you select, Nafziger’s research gives some guidelines on what rates you should plant to stay in the race.

“Most producers should have the planter set to the mid-30,000s as a starting point,” says Nafziger. “Don’t drop it too low and don’t raise it too high. In our research, 250-bushel yields can come from 35,000 plants per acre as easily as from 40,000 plants per acre.”

For soybeans, Nafziger says 140,000 seeds per acre is generally a good rate. “Trying to cut the rate to a bare minimum when you don’t know how many plants will emerge doesn’t seem particularly wise,” he points out.

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