(I enjoy history, especially that of the seed industry. Every once in a while I will scan a catalog and offer up a .PDF version for your enjoyment.)
Here is the 1963 seed catalog of Pioneer Hybrids. It was mailed to growers in a plastic mailing bag with an overall size of 6.5 inches by 9 inches. There’s a cover letter from Garst & Thomas (distributors of Pioneer seed back then) dated 1962 but the catalog actually has descriptions of products for 1963. This is due to the fact that seed is typically sold in the fall after harvest of the current year but picked up and planted the following spring.
Along with the catalog and cover letter is an information card and a plastic bag that measures 14 inches tall by 20 inches wide. The bag has a colorful farm scene printed on it and was meant to store stuff in it or even be used for freezing foods. I’ve had several folks share with me that their mom often filled this bag with baked goods and sent it off to college with them. But being a prized possession, they were instructed not to return home without it!
Of course, the catalog is important. The bag was a customer give-away that was very practical for home use but the catalog had the information growers wanted. It highlights the current hybrids that are proven as well as new hybrids that a grower might want to try on a few of his acres. You’ll find “good rules” for growing corn and sorghum on the inside back cover. Notice point 9 where the use of DDT granules is recommended for control of corn borers! (For folks not familiar, DDT was banned decades ago as a known carcinogen.)
Finally, the pages that most likely were studied more than any other in the catalog are pages 9 and 12. These are the charts that show all of the hybrids for sale in the region and various characteristics. This is where growers can see the relative maturities and whether the hybrids have the agronomic characteristics they need for their farm. Still today, these charts prompt growers to call their sales representative and ask about hybrids they’re not planting.
For an historical perspective, download the scanned items and catalog and make a side-by-side comparison with modern catalogs (younger growers will enjoy this exercise). I find it interesting to see how descriptive language has changed for the physical makeup of hybrids and agronomic characteristics. For example, “stiffness of stalks” in 1963 is now “stalk strength” in 2020. And “length of shank” is not used anymore, at least not by Pioneer.
A parting thought – like hybrids over the years, communication styles have certainly changed. In 1963, who would have thought anyone would be “blogging” about their Pioneer catalog in 2020?
I want you to do well. ~ph
P.S. Having worked in the seed business for a little over 20 years, I’ve observed seed companies transition from printed catalogs to digital catalogs and then actually do both in an attempt to reach as many people as possible on different platforms. The current thinking is that the younger generation of agricultural producers strictly use their “smart devices” (i.e., smart phones and tablets) to gather information. However, owing to the fact that a high percentage of a producers are over the age of 55, there’s still a need for printed material as this generation is mostly not interested in smart devices and navigating the internet.
Pioneer Hi-Bred (founded 1926) long ago established itself as a premier educator and creator of educational materials about most things dealing with crop breeding and plant growth and development. Printed material and various other formats have been used over the years to share information with growers. Since the early 1930s, numerous seed catalogs and pamphlets, or booklets, have been published by Pioneer Hi-Bred. This blog highlights one published in 1950 – The Corn Plant of Today.
Countless publications, videos and web pages can be found that describe the corn plant. Information on growth stages, management strategies, diagnostic guides, research papers, etc., can be found with a quick search on the internet. But, in 1950, knowledge was found only in people and printed materials made available through the cooperative extension service of land grant colleges, USDA agricultural agencies and private industry such as Pioneer Hi-Bred.
Collaborative efforts often lead to private industry publishing pamphlets with joint authorship with university extension specialists and professors of various disciplines. The Corn Plant of Today is a classic example. It was written by Edgar Anderson of Washington University who was a highly respected and published botanist. What I enjoy most about this booklet is its casual presentation – it feels like you’re having a conversation with a botanist! He makes the reader consider questions about what a corn plant should look like. It’s the same question breeders are always asking of customers and agronomists. As in, “does today’s corn plant meet the needs of the grower?”
They’re violent, loud, dangerous, destructive and often are precursors to tornadoes. Hail storms. The average hail storm lasts less than a couple of minutes but depending on the intensity and size of hail stones, damage can vary from barely noticeable to total crop destruction.
Hail damage to crops basically comes down to these questions – will the plants survive and, if so, will yield be affected? In my experience, more so for corn, the most noticeable effects of hail damage are three-fold: twisting of the leaf canopy, leaf loss, and stem bruising.
Twisting of the leaf canopy is the result of leaves being shredded by hail stones with the shredded remnants being wrapped or twisted by excessively strong winds. (This phenomenon is more prevalent in young corn, usually V6 or smaller.) The reason this can impact plant survival is that the newly emerging leaves in the whorl can’t advance as the plant recovers. Survival rates of plants can improve if the dying, twisted leaves can somehow detach from the plant, making emergence of the new leaves possible. The impact on yield depends on plant death (stand loss) and distribution down the rows (plants that recover quicker can shade out and out-compete adjacent plants.)
Leaf loss is the most obvious effect of hail on plants. The leaves are the photosynthetic factory – capturing sunlight and converting it to energy that supports plant growth. Believe it or not, there are times when complete leaf loss will not impact yield. Such is the case in corn where leaf loss up to about V3 is not detrimental. Reason being, this is before ear development commences and the plant is still dependent on the seminal root system for support.
Whorl or stem bruising is often overlooked in assessing hail damage. Hail stones are dense and hard. Young corn plants, however, are tender – very little lignin formation has occurred and so a somewhat rigid stalk rind has yet to develop. As the winds bend over the stalks, the lower sections are exposed and vulnerable to being struck by hail stones. The thing to remember is that the growing point is near or above the soil surface around V5 or V6. If the stone penetrates deep enough, it can bruise and kill the growing point. When this happens, the plant is finished. A sharp knife (and the appropriate protective gear) can help determine the depth of penetration of a hail stone. The growing point should be near white while a damaged or dying growing point will turn brown.
As with most storm events, its too wet to do anything in the field afterwards so the best advice is to wait and assess plant recovery over a period of about a week. Give the plants time to recover! In the meantime, don’t hesitate to call your seed rep and agronomist and get their opinion. Here are some other resources for various crops:
“It’s just a pencil,” they say. “They,” are the ones who have no interest in understanding the history and development of not only a writing utensil but the advertisements placed thereon. For some folks, the pencil is a tool, precisely shaped and containing “lead” that is the exact hardness, or softness, for the task at hand. They are willing to pay good money for quality and they’ll use every inch of it. For others, it’s simply a writing instrument that can be bought in bulk and frankly couldn’t care less if it broke or was lost for eternity in the couch cushions. For the purveyors of mechanical pencils, the smoothness of the action and an abundant supply of stick lead are the priorities. But in today’s world of smart devices, writing instruments are falling out of favor as “notes” can now be recorded using apps or voice recognition.
Pencils were important to me early in life. In second grade, I had an affinity for picking pencils up off the floor and putting them in my desk. No, I didn’t bother asking my classmates if they belonged to them. If it was on the floor, it was mine. You might imagine a collection of pencils that filled nearly half of my desk. My teacher noticed. She promptly let everyone go through my desk to repossess their lost pencils. I was devastated. Only a handful of pencils remained in my desk. I was sure my mother sent me to school with more than that but the argument was lost on the teacher. Mrs. Stone was her name. And I still have a strong dislike for her.
I’ve often wondered how modern pencils reached their exact shape and composition. I took drafting and art in high school and quickly learned that the thickness of a drawn line matters and how the downward pressure you applied made a difference on the lifespan of the point. This became very evident while learning shorthand. Yes, I was the only guy in my high school class who took shorthand. And, yes, I was faster than the girls and I took it at a rate of 110 words per minute. PRIDE! The thing I learned was that writing efficiency increased when you applied just enough pressure to lay the lead down thus allowing you to move the across the page quicker and easier. (When applied to a pen, light writing pressure prevents the strokes from pushing through the paper and making it all harder to read.)
I also learned that pencils don’t really contain lead. They may have back in the day but now they contain graphite. If you’ve noticed over time, advertising and our day-to-day conversations have lost the word “lead” (rightfully so) and either omit it or use “graphite” in its place. Of course, some pencils don’t contain either but those are not real pencils in the eyes of the purist; they’re something else. Oh, the erasers might have been made of real rubber back in the day, but no more. Now they’re made of synthetic material that doesn’t smear the graphite and last a lot longer. Given society’s attitude toward all things disposable, you rarely find a pencil anymore with the eraser worn down to the metal ferule and replaced with a push-on pencil topper eraser.
Advertising on pencils has also evolved. Some of the most memorable and effective marketing was employed by Ritepoint back in the 1950s and 60s. Ritepoint was an advertising firm based in St. Louis, Missouri, but they were notable for the way they incorporated display tops on mechanical pencils and pens. The photo below shows several gems featuring various agricultural crops. The clear plastic tops contained actual seeds or commodities (such as sugar on the far right) but they also used castings that simulated containers or sacks. An example is fourth from the left which is a sack of Pioneer Hi-Bred corn seed. You can also find ones that look like oil cans (for various petroleum companies), soft drink cans and bottles, hot dogs and concrete blocks floating in a liquid-filled top and various other items. So cool! Their mechanisms were relatively simple and the inside of the barrel contained a place to store sticks of lead and an eraser, both accessible by pulling the top section off.
You will rarely find writing utensils designed like this today. In my world of agribusiness, marketing strategies mostly budget for pens of various designs and colors. They are cheaply made owing to the disposable attitude mentioned earlier as well as the marketing objective to get as many as possible in the hands of consumers. (Why spend a lot of money on an item that will get tossed into the trash or lost in a short period of time?) Most advertising on today’s pens is a simple print stamp that wears off easily. Of course, you’ll only find that out if you keep it around for longer than a few weeks.
“What about advertising on today’s pencils,” you ask? I honestly have no idea. Hardly anybody gives them away anymore. Apparently, they’re made only for elementary kids who can’t be trusted with ink or keeping their hands to themselves.
An Essay on the Rise and Fall of Hybrids in the Seed Business
Since the beginning of hybrid corn development in the early 1900s, breeders have made step changes in product performance. (A step change is where the new hybrid is not just a little better than the previous generation of products but so much better that growers will demand only that hybrid.) These changes might encompass significant improvements in disease tolerance, lodging or insect resistance and of course, yield. Sometimes the step change is extraordinary. The seed industry has seen this over the years where a hybrid performs at such a high level that it takes traditional breeding programs literally years, sometimes decades, to catch up to it. Pioneer Hi-Bred has a wonderful history of these, most notable being corn hybrid Pioneer® brand 3394 (early 1990s) and sorghum hybrid Pioneer® brand 84G62 (late 1990s).
Understandably, growers can become emotionally attached to these extraordinary hybrids. After all, their success is tied to the performance of the products they plant. Yes, it’s mostly yield that drives this success, but not just yield in one year – yield across multiple years. In the seed industry, we describe a hybrid that yields consistently over time and across environments as “stable.” As an experienced agronomist with over 20 years of experience, stable hybrids are few and far between. These are the hybrids that growers request for many years knowing that the hybrid will perform and that they won’t have to worry about whether the latest and greatest new product will let them down. In a business that’s often “year to year,” this stability is often welcomed. It’s peace of mind.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on which side of the ledger you’re on, stability is not always the driving factor in selling hybrids. It’s no secret that seed companies will literally introduce and drop a hybrid after only one year. This speaks to the rapid improvements in breeding science but also the drive for yield and financial success in a very competitive market place. So, hybrids that are stable – meaning, not always winning the yield contest but certainly above average – are not always in demand. This makes life difficult for a seed company in deciding what to grow for the next selling season.
After harvest, a seed company must decide what hybrids to produce the following summer in order to have the seed supply needed for their customers to plant in the spring more than a year later. To do this, they must predict what hybrids their customers will likely buy for the following year. But growers often base their purchase decisions on the current year’s performance and don’t always consider previous years. Weather plays a key role in product performance but no two years are alike and the best hybrid this year might not be the best next year. As you might imagine, it’s very difficult to predict which hybrids will perform best when you don’t know what the weather will bring! Given this, stability seems like a good thing, doesn’t it?
The complexity of growing hybrid seed is nearly overwhelming. Below is an example of a corn hybrid that’s widely adapted (image courtesy of Pioneer Hi-Bred) that literally has 221 variations. For this hybrid, there are nine versions of trait offerings for various market opportunities. A few examples include a “conventional” version – no traits for the organic market; an herbicide tolerant version – no insect traits but needed for refuge acres and a below-ground insect protection version for areas with known corn rootworm pressure. Next are seed treatments – various rates of insecticide, formulations, active ingredients, etc. Then there are several packaging options of which the most common are boxes and bags but imagine various sizes of these units to accommodate field research needs. My personal favorite is the last tier which is seed size – rounds and flats of which there are small, medium and large. Depending on the hybrid, there can also be extra small and extra large. Today’s high-tech planters can often be fickle about seed size. Take my word for it, you can have all the right genetics, traits, seed treatments and packaging but if you don’t have the right seed size for the planter, you can lose the sale! Seed size is mostly determined by genetics but can be manipulated to a certain degree by management. Historically, hybrids have been dropped because they consistently produced seed that was either too small or too large.
This complexity in seed offerings for the grower has value. A seed company is a business and assigns a cost to every one of the 221 variations in this example. It must do this to keep track of production costs and understand what “value” each variation contributes to the overall picture. So, what happens when a hybrid doesn’t perform to expectations and growers decide to move on? Demand drops and now the cost of producing these variations starts to increase. (Imagine growing seed based on demand that fizzles for one reason or another – you now have a bunch of processed seed sitting in storage that nobody wants.) Again, this is a business. Just as every company assigns a cost to each variation, they also assign a threshold cost where it doesn’t make sense to continue producing it.
As you observe sales of seed over time, you’ll notice that all hybrids have a “lifecycle.” If they make the cut after the first year, sales grow for a time (they’re new and exciting), then stabilize (above-average but starting to fall behind), then drop (stable yield but just simply getting left behind by newer genetics). Not long after the final stage, they are no longer produced. The decision to drop a hybrid is not easy. Typically, near the end of a hybrid’s lifecycle, production acres (the production fields where the male and female inbreds are grown to produce the hybrid seed) become more difficult to manage (small acreage needed at this point) and variability in production per acre tends to go up. Thus, production costs also go up.
Finally, regional differences (a hybrid does well in one area but not others) can often accelerate a product’s lifecycle. This, honestly, is the demise of most hybrids in the industry. When a hybrid is widely adapted – grown on a lot of acres by a lot of producers – the production process is more efficient and frankly, more profitable. But when demand drops quickly, as might be the case when a large growing area completely walks away from a hybrid, a decision to keep producing that hybrid must be evaluated even knowing that it might still be one of the best performers in other areas of the country.
The seed business is complex, business-driven and very emotional. Emotions around a hybrid can be strong as growers gain an affinity for something that feels like family. Livelihoods thrive on the success of hybrid seed production and seed company employees often feel equally emotional at the loss of hybrids. Given all of this, there’s an axiom about the seed business that I often share with customers: “Don’t fall in love with this hybrid. There’s a good chance it’ll be gone next year.”
Every year in central and south Texas, nearly 50 Pioneer® sales reps work with growers to plant and harvest over 125 corn and sorghum plots. All of this takes place in a large region ranging from north of Waco down to the Rio Grande Valley.
In this summary, 2019 performance data of Pioneer® brand corn and sorghum hybrids are highlighted as well as research data on planting populations. Corn rootworm hybrid performance is also highlighted as 2019 saw extremely high pressure in central Texas.
2019 started with a full soil moisture profile for the entire
area. Late winter rains delayed planting
and field work except for a few areas in central Texas which managed to plant
“early.” Central Texas received excess
rains throughout the first half of the growing season causing issues with
nitrogen loss. Heat unit accumulation
was nearly ideal for the entire area up to the middle part of grain fill – then
it turned off hot and dry. By this time,
the yield potential was basically locked in.
Overall, grain quality was some of the best seen in recent years.
Yields were well above normal for some areas in central Texas with
others below normal owing to too much rain.
Further south, in the San Antonio area as well as the lower Gulf Coast,
yields were outstanding. Several farmers
reported record level yields for both corn and sorghum in these areas.
Wet years bring out the best in most hybrids but consistency
across years and across acres is a challenging concept for the seed
industry. As always, planting a mix of
products usually results in the least amount of risk across the farm.
As you study the findings in this summary don’t be afraid to reach out to your local Pioneer or Corteva sales rep with questions or comments. Now, read on!
CORN – GENETICS
The tale of two years – 2018 and 2019. Last year was a severe drought for most areas while 2019 was wetter and nearly ideal. Unfortunately, hybrids that do well during a drought are not always the best when it rains. Below are the Pioneer® brand hybrids with the most top three finishes for the last two years, ranked in order.
Other hybrids are available but
this table shows why planting a mix of hybrids (by agronomics and yield
potential as well as maturity) is important for controlling risk across the
farm. Take Pioneer® hybrid P1847VYHR
(RM 118), for example. Brand new in 2018,
it was considered “average,” as were most full maturity hybrids. This was because soil moisture ran out early
and nearly all full season hybrids were below average (P2089VYHR a notable
exception). Yet, in 2019 it was one of
the strongest performers. Pioneer hybrid
P1395YHR, a perennial favorite, fell down the charts as hybrids with higher
top-end yield potential rose to the top.
Summary: It’s easy to fall in love with the new releases from seed companies. We always encourage customers to never plant more than 20% of their acreage to new products. Spread the risk of product failure by mixing up hybrids and consider spreading out maturity to help manage harvest and mitigate timing of environmental stress. Maturities with various traits are available from 103 CRM to 120 CRM.
CORN – MEXICAN CORN ROOTWORM
Central Texas is home to a variant of the Western Corn Rootworm, called the Mexican Corn Rootworm (MCRW). While it is found only in central Texas, it’s behavior is identical to that of the Western. There is only one generation per year; adults emerge before or during silking, mate and then move down into the soil to lay eggs. The eggs overwinter, larvae hatch after enough heat has accumulated and then feed on corn roots. They develop into adults and continue the cycle. MCRW is mostly an issue with continuous corn rotations.
Do not confuse this specie with
the Southern Corn Rootworm (SCR). MCRW
has one host only – corn. SCR has over
100 hosts and overwinters as adults, not as larvae or eggs. SCR can infest corn in any rotation and is
best controlled with seed treatments. Note that corn rootworm traits expressed in
the plant HAVE NO EFFECT on SCR.
Below is a drone image of a test
plot near McGregor, TX. The strips that
appear down are lodged due to MCRW root feeding. The strips that appear normal contain corn
Summary: Infestations of MCRW can SIGNIFICANTLY reduce yields and impact fields with as few as three years of continuous corn. Scout fields before, during and after silking to evaluate adult beetle population. Treatment thresholds are published and control can be effective. Traits are not effective on SCR.
SPOTLIGHT – BLUETOOTH & GRAIN CARTS
Occasionally, a technology comes along that inspires
confidence in conducting on-farm research while also serving a practical
purpose for the farming operation. What
caught our eye this year was the Libra Cart Bluetooth technology by
Agrimatics. Grain carts are outfitted
with unloading sensors and when coupled with Bluetooth allow the operator to
see and record weights on smart devise.
For conducting on-farm research, you don’t need to stop and get out of
the combine and grain samples can be taken just outside the cab door.
This system is a pragmatic alternative to GPS driven data
management systems such as yield monitors coupled with computer programs. From an on-farm research standpoint, ease of
communication and real-time recording of weights make conducting large strip
trials much easier to execute. One
feature is the recording of weights when unloading commences – you’ll never
miss a weight that you forgot to write down!
(Source: Agrimatics.com. Please note, neither Pioneer nor Corteva AgriScience sells or promotes this technology.)
SPOTLIGHT – DRONES
Pioneer maintains one of the largest drone fleets in the
US. Nearly every field and product
agronomist uses a drone in day-to-day work during the growing season. Proprietary software is used for taking stand
counts and collaborations with DroneDeploy allowed for in-season plant health
Using drones in production agriculture complements other tools such as satellite imagery and in-field scouting. The following are a couple of examples of how Pioneer agronomists used drones. The first is aDroneDeploy image showing degrees of crop stress using software that allows the grower to see a “live” map soon after flying. The second image shows an 80-acre field where 16 stand counts were taken in less than 20 minutes. Note the color designations that show deviations from what the grower planted.
PLACING HYBRIDS – RIGHT PRODUCT, RIGHT ACRE
In the seed business, rarely can you find one hybrid that does it all – performing best in drought; when it rains; and on every soil type. Over 100 plots are planted every year in central and south Texas. This helps Pioneer professionals to better understand product behavior and how to position them on your farm. Here are the key factors that affect product performance and are key to understanding what might work on your ground:
Historic yield level
Dryland sub 80 bu/A
Dryland 80-100 bu/A
Dryland 100-140 bu/A
While certain hybrids are widely adapted, most are not. There are some that don’t like “wet feet.” There are some that can’t tolerate foliar disease or high winds (brittle/green snap). In fact, as noted in earlier sections, some don’t perform well when planted at high populations. Make sure your Pioneer rep understands the “lay of your land” and reference the category chart that follows.
I’m about to head out the door into one of the busiest times of the growing season for the agronomist – planting. The soil temperature is rising, the sandhill cranes are migrating north and the calendar says it times to go. For the farmers and supporting personnel, it’s always the highest pressure time of the year – the need to get over the acres as quickly as possible with as few mistakes as possible.
Generally speaking, there’s an ideal planting date. It’s around January 15th in the Rio Grande Valley; February 15th around Corpus Christi; March 1st around Waco, an so on to the north. Research shows that “early” plantings are usually associated with the highest yields. However, there’s risk associated with pushing the envelope and planting too early. Remember that thing called the last frost/freeze date for you area? About the time you get comfortable with warmer than normal winters, you’re quickly reminded that you’re not really in control when it freezes and kills all the emerged corn a day before this date.
Replanting can be expensive but it’s often times minimal compared to the lost yield associated with “late” planting. I get it. This lower yield potential is why growers often accept the risk associated with early planting dates. (And it surely helps when seed companies offer up generous replant support!). Ultimately you have to decide what level of risk you’re willing to accept for your operation. It’s often a conflict between the calendar date and soil moisture available for planting. That’s right, the decision is not easy and to wait is one of the hardest things for a grower to do!
Needless to say, we have one chance to get this right. Yes, once. It’s one thing to look at your garden and say, “I don’t like the way the pepper plants are looking. Let’s pull them and start over.” It’s an entirely different thing to pull up 2,000 acres, each filled with 24,000 plants and just start over. Rarely does the replanted crop yield up to expectations. So remember – you, your family, your neighbors and your landlords will have to look at this crop for the remainder of the year.
So be patient. Let the soil warm up. Let it dry out properly. Avoid the temptation to till when it’s a little too wet. Make sure the planter is ready, seed is in the barn, starter fertilizer tanks are full, and more importantly, make sure you have the mindset of getting it right.
I want you to do well. God, bless our farmers! ~PH