Living & Dying by the Seed Selection Sword

By Paul Hermans

With harvest nearing completion across Eastern Canada, attention is switching to crop planning for the 2023 growing season. Arguably seed selection is one of the most important choices a grower will make on their farm on a yearly basis.

Many factors need to be looked at when picking a corn hybrid or soybean variety. Yield comes to the top of the list every time. But knowing your fields and disease pressure, weed issues, soil types, etc., should play a big factor in ensuring you pick the right product for the right acre.

I asked growers during our fall plot tours how many bushels of corn they could lose if they placed the wrong product for a given field. Many answered 10 to 20 bushels (some even higher).

This told me we need to do a better job at picking seed hybrid/varieties. Many growers spend a few hours on picking seed, but multiple hours picking the next combine or tractor.

Just imagine if you spent a bit more time on seed selection and field placement, how it could help the purchases of that next combine, tractor, or new farm land!

up close of dry corn stalks
    Leslie Stewart photo

Let’s do a deeper dive into seed selection.

When I first started my career at Pioneer, some 25 years ago, I was given a chart that explained the importance of looking at a lot of data sets when picking a corn hybrid, and it still stands true today.

chart displaying measured yield differences
    Figure 1: Using different environments to help measure performance.

If you look at one corn plot that has a three-bushel difference in corn yield, you might as well flip a coin to pick the product. When you increase to 30 plots, the odds of picking the right hybrid increases substantially, to 75 per cent.

Simply put, the more plots you have in different growing environments and management practices, the better you can predict future performance in upcoming growing seasons.

Just like going to the racetrack and betting on a key thoroughbred, if I can pick out 70 per cent or more times what a horse will do in the next race, it means I could be a big winner and celebrate in the winner circle time and time again.

Is more always better?

Yield for sure. However, when we look at number of products in a plot and try to make a sound comparison, the answer is no.

Field variability and soil type differences can be huge across a small area. The bigger the plot, the less confidence I have in making the right seed selection decision.

I shudder when I walk into a grower plot that is more than eight products in it.

The following research data shows this fact in Figure 2.

chart displaying hybrids vs best product percentage
    Figure 2: Chance of finding the bext product vs. hybrids in plot.

One example that always sticks in my mind with respect to plot size is when we have above-average rainfall for a growing season. For large plots that run parallel to the tile runs, we often see a wave pattern to the height of products across a field.

When we measured the height differences in corn between the tile runs compared to the tile runs it was obvious Mother Nature was playing a bigger role in the “seed selection by sword” outcome.

Corn over the tile runs was 109 inches (276 cm) tall compared to corn between the tiles at 88 inches (223 cm) tall.

The yield winner in the case was determined by position in the field and not genetics.

One could make the wrong seed selection when looking at the overall data and not the history of what was going on in this field.

As a grower you may ask yourself how do I make sound decisions?

Look at multiple sets of data locally with head-to-head comparisons of the same products. Review data over different growing years to gain confidence in products. Ensure you are comparing products of similar maturity and technology traits to compare apples to apples. Conducting your own on-farm trials across variable soil types and management decisions is the best way to ensure you get a handle on next year’s “Mother Nature’s” curveball. Take some time to position your trial uniformly in your fields to give every product the chance to be that winner.

Think about the decisions you make on seed and how it will drive your bottom line – not only in 2023, but beyond.

Most hybrids have a life span of about three to four years (some less). Growers tend to “vote” for their hybrid of choice with “harvest emotion” instead of long-term data economics.

Plots can be exciting, and everyone wants to pick that winner. However, just like the horse at the racetrack, I want to be that winner 70 per cent of the time.

With shifting patterns in the weather from rainfall during flowering time, to solar radiation differences during grain fill, every growing season is different.

When sitting down with growers I suggest they look at not only multiple plot data in one year, but multiple plot data over two to three years.

Part of my role at Corteva/Pioneer is involved in research. We have implemented a two-year final testing program for corn to take out those one-year weather wonders and ensure a hybrid has two solid performance years back-to-back before a product is brought to the market.

This is done after the initial research and seed selection phase testing experimental products in different growing environments.

A hybrid that tops the plot one year and comes third or fourth the next year in a plot can still be a great hybrid if we understand where that product fits on a field-by-field basis.

I also caution growers in using yield data from combine yield monitors to pick hybrids or soybean varieties. Unfortunately, today’s equipment cannot separate effectively enough the differences in yield and moisture to adequately pick the winner consistently. In a previous article I referenced this more in detail.

In 2015 we conducted a simple experiment by weighing a corn hybrid plot with both a yield monitor and a weigh wagon.

At the end we compared the ranking of the hybrids in the plot. What was top on the yield monitor ranking was fifth on the weigh wagon ranking.

If you take the time to plant the plot (head-to-head production comparisons or agronomy wise) take the time to harvest it using a weigh wagon or set of scales to make the right decision going forward.

chart displaying hybrids vs combine data
    Figure 3: Comparing yield monitor data to weigh wagon data in 2018.

Hybrids, technology, and traits have changed a lot over time. All of this is important, but do not get caught up in all the technology hype.

Technology is great but, sound agronomics and picking the right seed going forward will mean living another year instead of dying by the seed selection sword.

In summary, look at lots of data sets across multiple environments combined with your own plot work to best predict future performance of seed.

By doing so with an accurate and sound plot design, you ensure you have the best seed selection outcome possible.

All the best in your 2023 seed selection process! BF

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