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

Rinse and Repeat

Earlier in my career I once shared with a colleague that I had 10 years of experience. He asked, ” is that 10 years of experience or 1 year of experience repeated 10 times?” His response caused me to pause and I certainly had to stop and think about just what I had learned over those years. Was I basically on a “rinse and repeat” cycle or, more importantly, did I waste time and basically rest on my laurels?

After that I decided that whenever I felt like I was “repeating” myself that I would step up and do something different so that the next year was mostly a new experience. Too, it was important that I find creative ways to share that experience with my farmers and sales team. Sure, it’s corn, sorghum and cotton, year after year. You know, rinse and repeat. While the weather may differ, they all basically grow the same year after year. So what’s interesting or new about that? If you’re an agronomist – everything!

I just returned from our company’s annual agronomy meeting (you might have noticed me on Twitter cowering under the sub-zero temperatures) and was surrounded by the largest agronomy team any seed company has in the world. From all over North America, over 300 agronomists shared research findings, teaching methods, and an infectious enthusiasm for the food and fiber our farmers produce. You may not realize it but while you might see only field agronomists like myself at your local meetings and such, behind the scenes are production agronomists who are responsible for thousands of seed production acres. They’re mostly taken for granted but they are a key reason why our seed has the highest quality tolerances in the industry.

Drone technology, satellite imagery, photometry, seed treatment technology, and how to possibly plant seed at 17 mph were all on the agenda (that’s not a typo, Ohio State researchers were pushing the limits of down force!). Of all the topics, my personal favorite was understanding the differences in corn and soybean root morphology. It was an amazing look at rooting depth, volume, growth behavior and the basic differences in nutrient and water uptake. We often hear that size matters but there’s something called a root:shoot ratio and it really does matter!

Every year at that meeting I’m humbled and reminded that there are a lot of passionate, smart people in our industry. I was surrounded mostly by agronomists but there are sales reps and company personnel that are equally passionate with nearly all possessing knowledge and experience that can help improve your position in life as a farmer. My advice is to reach out and take advantage of that. It’s included in the price of the seed. Don’t “rinse and repeat” and expect it all to be different.

I want you to do well. God bless our farmers!

Plots Suck. Part II.

Part I of this series showed that having confidence in the results of a plot matters. It’s asking an awful lot of a 5 or 10-acre strip plot to represent hybrid selection across hundreds or thousands of acres. When seed companies use this method they rely on dozens to hundreds of them to understand how different environments impact hybrid performance. This is commonly referred to as GxE, or genetics by environment. But not every grower manages their crops the same so having different locations introduces another factor – management (M). Now we have a GxExM interaction and you can quickly see how the whole picture of product performance can get muddled (e.g. one grower may apply fungicide or late season nitrogen while another doesn’t). That’s why quality data for an individual plot are critical. The data are important to you for your farm but also think of it as a data link in a decision chain.

Are there other ways of evaluating hybrids? Sure. I personally prefer large strips of 5 or more acres for each individual hybrid being tested. But, the yield has to be checked with a weigh wagon or a calibrated yield monitoring system. Using yield maps is fine as long as the data are of good quality. So what are sources of error that can impact plot results? Here are a few:

Harvest ruts can impact next year’s yield but what happens when a plot entry is planted in this affected area while the others are not?

  • Hybrids planted in the pinch rows (see Plots Suck, Part I).
  • Plot planted last, long after most acres were planted.
  • Placing the plot in a part of the field that results in an entry being planted in an undesirable spot that clearly impacts yield (e.g. an entry happens to be planted in a low spot).
  • Supplied seed has different seed sizes and no adjustments are made resulting in different stands across the plot.
  • Sprayer runs over or “leans over” some of the rows of a single entry but not the same number across all entries in the plot.

It’s not possible to eliminate every source of error. Remember, the goal is to have each entry in the plot treated equally and to walk away at the end of harvest with a high degree of confidence that the results are correct. When we achieve this we can say, “that plot didn’t suck.”

I want y’all to do well. God bless our farmers!

Plots Suck. Part I.

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.

While it takes up more space, split the planter between two hybrids. And while it may take more time to plant, the outcome is better and you get a whole lot more free seed.

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.

I want y’all to do well. God bless my farmers!

Farmer vs. Agronomist

I am not a farmer. I work with farmers. I am a trained agronomist. (I’m what you call a professional so don’t try this at home.) I have all the answers – most of which are derived driving by fields at 70 mph. I am an “armchair farmer” of sorts, reading articles, published scientific papers, trade magazines and I formulate opinions about the successes and failures of crop production. Of course, I walk fields. Lots of them. My advice is the best advice. I firmly believe that. Do as I say. End of discussion.

I often go out and share my knowledge and wisdom on increasing crop productivity with every grower within listening distance and return back home to the armchair and ponder whether I actually had any impact.  In the couple of months after harvest I will have made presentations to over 500 growers. I’ll know shortly of my influence as planting will commence in the next couple of weeks in south Texas.

How will the farm economy affect their decisions? Will they avoid the temptation to plant before the last spring freeze? Will they keep their crop rotation intact to avoid the yield decline associated with monoculture? Will they take the time to eliminate compaction and ruts left after last year’s harvest? Will they plant my hybrids and plant the recommended seed populations or take somebody else’s advice on what to plant?

More importantly, do they realize that when every grower chases the highest price that over-production and depressed prices are the result? Of course they do. They’re independent growers selling into a global market that they virtually have no control over. And that stinks. As the agronomist, I can only give them advice and knowledge about how to increase productivity. But as a farmer, they often can only do what’s needed to survive another year. And in today’s world decisions are often influenced by their bankers or other financial supporters. And I’m pretty sure very few of them have a degree in agronomy. And that stinks, too.

All the training I’ve had. All the years in the business. All the watching and learning from growers all over the Midwest, the Great Plains and throughout Texas. All the reading, studying and driving by countless fields at 70 mph usually lead me to this conclusion – “I told them not to do that.”

I want y’all to do well. God bless my farmers!