Seed selection based on precision agricultural data isn’t quite as sophisticated as it will ultimately be in a few years.

Currently, corn hybrids are selected based on a number of decision-making categories listed in most seed product guides, but none of those categories can be explicitly linked to data gathered through the use of precision agriculture hardware and software other than total harvested yield.

Grid sampling for soil fertility and soil type variation is an example of how sophisticated the soil sampling process has become, but little to none of that data can be used in a way that has a major influence on hybrid corn seed selection.

In general, seed companies contend that nonprecision-based decision processes have worked for growers. “Seed companies have a very good understanding of positioning products by looking at the best fit for the environment, where the seed will be planted, whether it is high fertility soil and a well-managed field or it is a field and soil that doesn’t have 250-bushel yield potential,” said Sean Jordal, Mycogen Seeds customer agronomist based in Illinois.

Basic fertility and soil type are selectors to some degree in hybrid selection, explained Jordal, but they are only two of approximately a dozen decision factors for seed selection. Instead of specific soil test data, fertility is usually noted in general terms—high, marginal or poor fertility—for hybrid performance need. 

Seed company mapping

Agricultural retailers and crop consultants have been helping their customers for several years with harvest/yield maps and soil fertility maps plus other precision ag data overlays such as elevation, soil type and weed competition. Only in the past couple years have seed companies embraced this type of mapping as having potential value in seed selection for fields.

“It does help to be able to capture yield information across a field and capture what inputs were placed where in the field along with exact seed planting placement data, and it is going to become even more important in the future for growing commodity corn,” said Jordal.

A seed company that has begun offering mapping similar to what ag retailers have been offering is Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont business. The offering is FIT Mapping with as-planted mapping and harvest yield mapping. Pioneer explains that this mapping can “help growers analyze product performance and crop inputs as well as help them make better-informed management decisions to get the most from each acre.”

As-planted maps are the newer of the precision tools. Yield monitors and the resulting harvest maps have been common for many years.

“As more and more farmers have planting equipment that they can use for variable rate seeding, being able to have those as-planted maps can verify if the prescription that a farmer went into the field intending to plant actually occurred. The map can verify if equipment was actually successful in planting at the rates intended across the field,” said John Chism, Pioneer FIT Services implementation manager.

“In 2010, with our FIT tools, our sales professionals have the opportunity to overlay soil-type maps onto farms and fields to use this information for more informed discussions with growers about which of our products might be the right fit in placing the right product on the right acre,” Chism said.

“The ability to use more precision information, whether it is fertility, elevation, soil type or other inputs and marry it up with yield data to learn even more for making better and more timely management decisions is on our radar screen,” Chism added.

Population link to hybrid

Some precision ag engineers and agronomists have suggested that planters able to change the seed planted from spot to spot in a field on the go is technology that farmers are ready to embrace, but at what cost? Because of expense, development of such planter equipment “concepts have evaporated instead of proceeded to market,” said Jordal.

Both Chism and Jordal said that being able to vary the plant population based on precision data might be just as successful as being able to vary hybrids on the go. But Jordal warned that “reducing the hybrid population is not always the best thing to do.”

He suggested that understanding a hybrid’s genetic performance based on all the environmental data will eventually make hybrid selection more sophisticated. Currently, Jordal said, “You look at the whole field as an aggregate sum, and you choose the hybrid that is going to fit 90 percent of the environment. You don’t have the ability to fine tune or spatially apply hybrids as you go across the field.”

Chism noted that some farmers do split planting with half of the planter filled with one hybrid and the other half with another hybrid. By using two hybrids with similar yield potential for the environment, but with different genetic family background, farmers are learning a lot about yield performance and also spreading their risk. It might be that one of the two hybrids will perform better in the weather conditions of a particular growing season.

Chism said, “If the grower logs what hybrid is planted where and how the planter was configured, all the analytics of as-plant data can then be matched with harvest mapping to look across that whole field and see how those hybrids stacked up head to head in average yield. Some powerful analytics can come to bear when people are using both the as-planted and harvest mapping.”

Obtaining the data from variable rate planters or combines with yield monitors is not a hard task to allow FIT as-planted and harvest mapping. The Pioneer sales professional accesses the grower’s monitor data card for a few minutes and downloads it via a computer into the FIT mapping software. The data is electronically transmitted to Pioneer’s mapping center in Johnston, Iowa, and the mapping is completed in about two weeks, explained Chism. Maps are sent via hard copy to the seed sales person to share with the grower and  are available to be accessed 24/7 through the Web site.

Spreading the risk

Seed professionals and farmers work together, no matter what seed company, to make hybrid and variety decisions that spread the risk, whether they are based off of mapping, or the sales professional and grower’s own knowledge and recordkeeping.

“When we talk to growers, we look at about five to seven different genetic families that we work with and try to find ones where there is some overlap in terms of being positioned on a given field. We try to utilize those different genetic families to provide genetic diversity.

And that is how growers can benefit from all the different genetics that are out there,” Jordal said. “The use of different genetic-based hybrids is like a risk management tool. They spread their risk by not having all their eggs in one basket.”

Even as precision data becomes available, there are still other considerations and information that shouldn’t be ignored as explained by Jordal. Some hybrid information is listed on product guides and some on technical guides. Usually the following information is available to use in the decision process:

  • Relative days to maturity and heat unit maturity
  • Tolerance to common diseases
  • Population range for best performance
  • Flex ear or fixed ear style hybrid
  • Plant structure including height and stalk
  • Ear placement on the stalk
  • Cob color
  • Basic soil fertility for best performance
  • General soil type
  • Hybrid sensitivity to different herbicides
  • Performance in non-standard row configurations
  • Irrigated and non-irrigated field fit

Chism wrapped up how all seed companies are looking at the customer hybrid selection process. He said, “Our opportunity as a seed company is to make sure we are building good databases for product knowledge and understanding of performance by our hybrids and providing it to the local field sales representatives and growers.”