Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

If tight margins have you thinking about buying lower-priced seed for 2018 that’s understandable, given the current market doldrums. But you could be jumping out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire. To keep from being burned next season by poor hybrid performance, Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie says to grab a calculator and estimate the return on investment for the hybrids you believe will perform best on your farm.

“Return on investment is more of a function of yield, not the seed price, so always evaluate hybrid yield potential first,” Ferrie says. 

For instance, you might pay $30 less per bag for hybrid A than for hybrid B this fall, but if hybrid B will outperform hybrid A by as little as 5 bu. per acre, you’d be money ahead to go with the higher-priced product (based on one bag of seed planting 2.5 acres and a price of $3.50 a bushel).

Talk to your seed rep and read company literature for insights into product performance. Be prepared to ask more questions to get answers to the nitty gritty details about yield potential—especially for the new-to-you hybrids.

“Sometimes you have to read between the lines to figure out how a hybrid will perform,” Ferrie says. “With disease ratings, which can go from 1 to 9, the company literature might only use the 7 to 9 ratings and nothing lower because they know the competition would pick them apart otherwise. A good seed rep knows this information and will tell you the weaknesses to look out for, where to put that hybrid on your farm or whether you should even grow it.”

While yield potential is king, consider hybrid strengths and weaknesses such as disease and insect resistance, drought tolerance, emergence and standability. “If you identify a top-yielding hybrid, consider how you can farm out its weakness and manage around it,” Ferrie advises.

Plus, because weather conditions change every year, be careful to not select hybrids on what you’re experiencing this season alone. Look at hybrid performance under different weather conditions and growing seasons to gain more perspective.

For example, “If you’d picked all your hybrids for 2014 and 2015 based on the drought of 2012, you would have missed out on some big yields because you would have been too defensive in your lineup,” he explains.

Ferrie says decisions based on price come into play when you find two hybrids that both offer what you need. “You choose the one that will get the job done for the cheapest investment then,” he says.

What about those scenarios when a seed rep tells you he has the exact high-yielding hybrid you planted this season, and he can sell it to you for $30 less a bag? It’s an opportunity worth checking into, but proceed with caution. Get out this summer while hybrids are still in the field and evaluate yours against the one he’s selling.

“Compare and contrast,” Ferrie advises. “If the seedsman has it in his plot and it’s 11/2" shorter than yours, has a different leaf structure and a totally different tassel, you know he’s not correct because, characteristic-wise, those two hybrids don’t match.” 

The flip side is true as well. If the two hybrids seem to match up, that’s a promising sign they could be from the same genetic family, he says. 

As you evaluate hybrids, don’t expect one or two hybrids to carry the weight of your profitability goals. Ferrie recommends setting a goal to select hybrids from at least three maturity groups to fit your fields. 

“You want an early, mid- and late-season hybrid so you can get diversity of pollination and spread your harvest. To keep this diversity, plant early corn first and late corn last,” Ferrie says. 

Make a Plan to Manage Hybrids for Yield

Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie shares two scenarios that speak to understanding the hybrid, your growing conditions and your management practices to get optimum yield results from your next crop.

Scenario 1
You’re in Nebraska and have a problem with Goss’s Wilt, for which there is no rescue treatment. You also need a hybrid that offers drought hardiness, but the best-yielding hybrid for your situation requires nitrogen on the back end to make strong yields at the finish line. 

Action Steps 
“You’re going to meet the hybrid’s late-season needs with a nitrogen application or the use of inhibitors,” Ferrie says. “If you can’t manage late-season N availability, then keep evaluating hybrids that better fit your management practices.”

Scenario 2
You’re in central Illinois, your cash rents are outrageous, and you need to crank out big yields to pay the bills. You hone-in on a racehorse hybrid you can push the population, but it’s slow out of the gate and also has a problem with gray leaf spot.

Action Steps 
“I’m going to put on fertilizer with my planter to get that hybrid out of the ground as fast as I can,” Ferrie says. “Because it’s a slow emerger, I’m also going to look at timing so I plant in as ideal conditions as I can.”

As for the gray leaf spot issue, Ferrie says to evaluate potential benefits of good disease scores but don’t pick hybrids based on scores alone.

“A dog’s a dog no matter how many high disease ratings are hung on it,” Ferrie says. “If I buy a hybrid with a high defensive score for all the diseases I want, it could yield 30 bu. per acre less than what I need. I’ve seen racehorse hybrids loaded with gray leaf spot that weren’t sprayed outyield hybrids with better gray leaf spot scores that were sprayed.”

The First Question You Ask

If you want to take your corn yields to a higher level of performance, spend more time and effort evaluating hybrids this fall, advises Mike Duffy, Iowa State University Extension economist. He says doing that singular job well has the potential to bump your corn yields by 40 bu. to 50 bu. per acre without any increase to your input costs.

“Selecting a hybrid for its yield potential is the producer’s opportunity to set the bar high for the coming year,” Duffy says. 

So what questions should you ask your seed rep this fall?

Bob Nielsen, Purdue University Extension corn specialist, recommends starting with this one: “How can I identify consistent, strong-performing hybrids for my farm?” 

The answer, he says—even with the rapid pace at which hybrids enter and leave the marketplace today—is to look for trials that evaluate hybrids over multiple locations and focus on consistency.  

“Multiple testing locations in a single year represent possible weather patterns your farm may encounter in the future,” Nielsen writes in the Chat ‘N Chew newsletter.

Consider hybrids that consistently yield 5% above the average trail yield. “If the average trial yield is 180 bu. per acre, look for hybrids yielding 189 bu. per acre or greater (180 x 1.05),” he writes. “Another way to look for consistent performers is to identify hybrids that yield at least 90% of the maximum-yielding hybrid in a trial. If the highest yield in a trial is 225 bu. per acre, look for hybrids that yield 203 bu. per acre or greater (225 x 0.90).”


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