Goodbye to a Hybrid

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.”

I want you to do well. ~ PH

2019 Central & South Texas Agronomy Review

Peter Hill, Ph.D. and Adam Owens, M.S

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 rootworm traits.

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. 

TECHNOLOGY 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.)

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 assessments.

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.

DroneDeploy image showing degrees of crop stress.
Stand count for a large field, completed in less than 20 minutes.

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
    • Irrigated
    • Other
  • Soil texture/drainage/terraces
  • Crop management
    • Fertility
    • Population/Row Spacing
    • Fungicide
    • Tillage
    • Crop rotation

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.