Brent Rendel couldn’t believe what he was seeing, so he double and tripled checked to make sure. In 2017, he thought he found two ringer soybean varieties, but the truth is he found one, sold by two seed companies. With 750 acres planted to the same variety, Rendel’s “insurance,” buying seed from two different companies, wasn’t as foolproof as he originally thought. Fortunately, Oklahoma weather cooperated, and Mother Nature didn’t deal any fatal blows to his acres planted in the same genetics. That single variety represented about one-third of his soybean acres and could have been devastating. Lesson learned: Now, he is even more mindful of genetic overlap and doesn’t expect different varieties because the brand on a seed bag is different. As you start to plan for next season, seed is one of the most important choices you’ll make. It impacts fungicide, insecticide and herbicide needs, determines yield potential and is about 20% of your variable input costs—the right or wrong choice could make or destroy your chances of a successful season.
One of the most important ways to protect your farm is through genetic diversity. While you might have a favorite hybrid or variety, planting it on 100% of your acres means Mother Nature might capitalize on a weakness and decimate your entire crop. “When we talk about hybrids we talk in families of hybrids,” says Kevin Cavanaugh, director of research at Beck’s Hybrids. “We want customers to know if there are similar genetics. At Beck’s we end the number of the product with the same two-digit number, so farmers know it has a shared parent.” AgriGold also identifies similar genetic families in its “Field GX” system, says Dustin Bowling, AgriGold western agronomy manager. “GX families can show similar genetic lineage but also show when hybrids have the same visual attributes.” One way to ensure genetic diversity is to ask— company breeders or agronomists will likely be able to help you identify shared genetics. However, they might not always be able to help if identical genetics cross into brands they don’t represent, like they did for Rendel. “We saw an increase this year both in total number of tags contributed and the number of relabeled bags,” says Matt Meisner, head of data science at Farmers Business Network (FBN). Rendell realized he planted 750 acres of the same seed when he received the FBN Seed Relabeling report. “We saw 45% of corn varieties are sold by multiple companies and 53% of soybeans are sold by different companies.” FBN refers to it as “relabeling,” a process in which genetic providers license the same hybrid or variety to multiple seed companies. This means you could literally see the same seed in two different seed bags. “We firmly believe choice is important, which is why we have the routes to market we do,” says Quinn Showalter, Syngenta head of marketing for NK seeds. “There are more than just genetics and traits [in the seed decision]; it includes service, seed treatment, financing, logistics and price.” Syngenta is one of about five major genetic suppliers in the U.S. Because breeding programs cost millions annually, most smaller seed companies are often unable to invest in breeding the same way larger companies can—so they use licensing to access the most up-to-date genetic options. “Without licensing, there would only be five brands in the U.S. and farmers would have limited choices and could possibly not have access to the highest performing genetics,” Cavanaugh says. “[Licensing gives] the ability to purchase the highest performing genetics for their area in the brand they choose.” Just because it’s the same variety number doesn’t always mean they perform the same, Cavanaugh adds. There are a number of factors that influence product performance beyond just genetics. For some farmers, this model makes sense because they see it in other parts of the ag input industry. “I don’t have a problem with [licensing] at all because of exactly what they’re saying—identical ingredients don’t mean [identical experiences],” Rendel says. “For example, when I shop for nitrogen fertilizer it’s the same at two retailers. I might go for the more expensive one because they know my fields and provide better service.” The risk with multiple companies selling the same genetics, however, is farmers don’t always know about it and could end up planting the same seed across multiple fields. “I don’t think the problem is the idea of relabeling—there are many reasons why a company would,” says Charles Baron, FBN co-founder. “We think companies need to be transparent about genetics because that’s what protects the farmer’s genetic risk, it gives them an open, competitive marketplace. The practice [relabeling] doesn’t have to be bad for farmers but the way it works today is bad for farmers.” Ask the right questions to ensure diversity across a variety of seed brands. Because seed companies list product brand names, not varietal ID numbers, you can’t always easily identify genetic overlap. Armed with the right questions and knowledge though, you can find out. “Some brands in Bayer’s seed portfolio feature biotech trait and germplasm combinations found exclusively within that brand,” says Aaron Robinson, Bayer NA corn product lead. “And while our seed guides and marketing materials provide important information to farmers, such as individual product brand names, disease ratings and maturity, it’s not just what goes into the bag of seed that drives a farmer’s decision. From planting decisions to monitoring crop performance throughout the growing season, farmers depend heavily on Bayer’s agronomic support teams to help maximize their success.” Seed guides or catalogs are one of the first keys to unlock the door to genetic diversity. Compare characteristics of the varieties or hybrids you’re considering, and if they’re identical across the board they might be the same seed—or, at the very least, related. This summer, farmers in west central Iowa saw first-hand the importance of genetic diversity when their fields experienced the worst greensnap Bowling has seen in his career due to powerful storms. “We saw genetic diversity [or lack thereof] to the row, and it was clear some hybrids were more susceptible to greensnap than others,” Bowling explains. “When you get into a situation like that different genetics stand out.” The 113-day to 115-day relative maturities took the worst hits, while the 110-day and 111-day relative maturities experienced drastically less damage. You decrease your risk of planting the same genetics, or similar genetics, if you plant a wider range of maturities, Bowling says. Diversity goes up as you spread out maturities. “If a farmer calls up and says I want to know the variety number, most seed companies will tell them,” Cavanaugh adds. While you might not have the seed bags sitting in your shed to compare, it’s likely your seed dealer does, or can find that information for you. “Another way to ensure diversity? Buy your seed product from one company that sources genetics from all of the major germplasm providers,” Cavanaugh says. Finally, aggregated data can clue you in on identical genetics across brands, too. Accessing that information from FBN, for example, requires you to be a member of FBN for $700 and submitting seed tags. “Farmers use this [Seed Relabeling Intelligence] to save money—we’ve heard up to $40 per bag or more by switching brands,” Baron says. The Seed Relabeling Intelligence program allows farmers to enter the brand name of the seed they’re considering and then identical options pop up for review, Baron says. For Rendel, the impact of genetic diversity—or lack thereof in some cases—goes beyond the impact on his wallet. On his farm, genetic diversity is his safety net and another form of insurance against whatever Mother Nature might throw his way. Now genetic diversity nears the top of his priorities when buying seed, and he’s using every tool in the toolbox to identify overlap.