A Rare Book Describing the Seed Business in the 1930s
If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, you know I enjoy agricultural history. All facets interest me, but hybrid corn development and the seed industry are fascinating topics. Hybrid corn is considered one of the greatest advancements in American agriculture with early beginnings around 1901. Yields of open pollinated corn were limited from the 1860s through the early 1900s but hybrid vigor quickly released the genetic potential of corn (Zea mays) and yields improved substantially and quickly with successful breeding programs sprouting up all over the Midwest region. The growing and selling of hybrid seed to farmers became a “business” proposition in the 1920s and several companies formed or expanded as a result.
One such brand that came into prominence was Kingscrost Hybrid Seed Corn, a part of Northrup, King & Co. which had roots in flower and garden seeds back to the 1880s. Headquartered in Minneapolis, MN, their focus was primarily on early maturity corn hybrids in the 90-to-110-day maturity range (a reference to the approximate number of days for the seed to reach physiological maturity). They were competing with companies such as Pioneer Hi-Bred, Dekalb (De Kalb), Funks Brothers, Pfister and others.
There is an abundance of books, manuals, sales literature, and other items that can be found describing the science and business of hybrid corn. For a recent review I encourage you to visit Terry Daynard’s blog on the brief history of the hybrid corn industry (tdaynard.com). Most of the books he cites are out of print but still available with some patient searching of auction sites and bookseller websites.
Given all these materials, few, if any, tell the story from beginning to end of a how a seed company grew and marketed their seed. That’s what makes this Kingscrost book remarkable. In my 20+ years in the seed business, I’ve seen only one other manual similar, but it wasn’t as complete or thorough. This book describes the general science and field principles behind the breeding, includes black and white photos showing them in practice and then provides the marketing/sales pages that a seed representative can use to promote the hybrids. (My guess is that it was put together as a training resource.) The last section of the book gives more thorough explanations of the various aspects presented throughout. Ironically, most of the basic principles and terminology described are still in use today, 80+ years after its publication.
It is a large book with board covers, contains 100 pages and measures 9 x 12 inches. I’ve added some additional notes in the beginning to give context and specifics on how I put this together and a look at some sales items at the back to give an idea of what the farmer experienced. If possible, browse it in a 2-page viewing format as I laid the pages out as they appeared in the book.
My goal is to share this so that students, teachers and ag enthusiasts, in general, can enjoy this aspect of agricultural history. Download a copy and share the link with others!
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?”
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.
Think about this: You farm 4,000 acres and you need a way to figure out which hybrids perform best. So what do you do? You pick 1 field and plant 1 plot. Yep, a 5-acre plot represents 4,000 acres. That’s all the time you have for this. Seriously, that’s what most of you do. The rest of you ask your neighbor what worked on their farm. And it doesn’t matter that they farm differently than you; rather, they’ve survived this long so they must be making the right decisions on hybrid selection. And, then, next year when the hybrid you chose wasn’t as good as the previous year or as good as the neighbor was bragging about, you get upset. And call your seed rep who then calls his agronomist who then rolls his eyes wondering why we repeat this cycle. Plots suck.
As an agronomist in the business for over 20 years, I estimate I’ve been involved with about 8,000 plots. Of these, 7,500 were a complete waste of time. Exaggeration? Not much. Seriously? Yes, seriously.
The goal of plot work is to evaluate product performance with a high degree of confidence. Confidence can have a statistical connotation but at the end of the year you want to walk away knowing that the test was fair and every entry had an equal chance of performing to its highest potential. So let’s explore this.
You have 12 hybrids and a 24-row planter and very little time to plant the plot that the sales rep has been pestering you about for the last month. (The reps don’t haven’t much of a life – all they do is drive around dropping off plot bags in the hopes that somebody will feel sorry for them and plant the damn things.) You’re under pressure and won’t devote more than an hour or so to get this done. What do a lot of growers do in this setting? They fill the planter with 6 hybrids, 4 rows each, refill at the end, plant back and they’re done. In this scenario, 4 of the 6 hybrids in the pass are treated equally, the other 2 are screwed. The 2 that were treated unfairly (those under the tractor tires and in the pinch rows) will likely yield less leading you to draw the conclusion that they’re not as good. Consequently you don’t order a single bag of either and tell the neighbors that those hybrids suck. You know what? The plot sucked.
I am fond of saying “to measure inaccurately is to not measure at all.” I firmly believe this. Think about this scenario – many growers will take the time to plant a quality plot but won’t take the time to use a weigh wagon. They harvest the plot using a combine with a yield monitor that hasn’t been calibrated and surely won’t be calibrated with each change in hybrid. This is another scenario where we walk away with limited confidence in the outcome of the plot. We justify this by telling ourselves that, if there is a source of error in the uncalibrated system, it affects each entry equally and in the same way. I am here to tell you that this is not a good assumption. Which reminds me, I’ve never heard a grower say, “if I get some time I’ll send you harvest maps of the plot where we used an uncalibrated combine.” Discomforting, to say the least.
Plots can offer a lot about product behavior and performance. To the best of your ability plant them when most other acres are being planted (certainly not last with a planting date that is not typical for the area). Plant them with the same care and attention as you give all the other acres and respect the time and effort that the breeders have invested in creating a bin-busting hybrid that can yield 500+ bu/a. Visit with the agronomists and sales reps beforehand to design a quality plot experience from start to finish.
I’ll leave you with this – if you put out a quality plot and my hybrids don’t perform well, I will respect that. If put out a plot that everybody and their dog knows wan’t done well, we’ll all talk about you every day at the local coffee shop and how your plot sucked. Don’t be that person.