Seed dealers are on the prowl this month, order pads in hand, as they seek forage seed orders for 2017 crops. More field crop seed is ordered in November than in any other month, though the volume of December orders is also large. Therefore it’s time for what has become an annual discussion of what’s hot and what’s not in the seed business and how this may influence your seed orders. It’s a bit too soon to predict the supply status of forage crop seeds; as the deadline approached for this column, some seed crops (including seed corn) weren’t yet harvested. However, in recent years there haven’t been any serious shortages and none are anticipated this year.
Reduced-lignin alfalfa was covered in depth in last month’s column so we’ll dispense with further discussion except to say that it’s “the real deal,” something that farmers planting clear alfalfa should consider. This includes alfalfa seeded with a small grain or a small grain-field pea blend. Time will tell whether any grass species will accommodate the delayed harvest schedule recommended with reduced-lignin alfalfa. Leafhopper-resistant alfalfa varieties have been around for years, available from most companies selling alfalfa seed, and are a good option where this serious alfalfa pest is a problem.
It’s difficult to predict the severity of damage any particular year (or location), since leafhoppers travel from south to north on upper air currents so infestations are subject to the whims of the weather. Limited testing by universities – including Cornell – found that without leafhopper pressure, most leafhopper-resistant varieties were slightly lower-yielding than non-resistant ones. This data is several years old but the situation probably hasn’t changed. Despite some “yield drag,” if you have serious leafhopper problems, the resistant varieties really shine. My opinion: If leafhopper damage is anything more than a rare occurrence, accept the 10 percent or so lower yield and plant leafhopper-resistant varieties.
I don’t know of an alfalfa variety with both reduced lignin and leafhopper resistance traits, but this may change as plant breeders develop new varieties. Hybrid alfalfa continues to perform well in variety trials. At this point hybrid alfalfas have no genetic resistance to leafhoppers, so growers have to make a choice between these two characteristics. In looking at the results of university trials, while hybrid alfalfa entries don’t always top the yield trials, they perform reliably well, usually finishing in the top third.
A recent (and significant) advance in corn breeding is the commercial release of drought-tolerant corn hybrids. These hybrids yield similar to normal ones when soil moisture is adequate, but can result in an additional 1 to 2 tons more corn silage per acre when the crop is moisture-stressed. Modern corn hybrids are much more water-efficient when compared with those of a generation ago. In fact there’s been steady improvement in the corn plant’s water efficiency for the past 50 or more years.
Even if you don’t buy corn hybrids promoted as being drought-tolerant, today’s hybrids have better protection against dry soils. Brown midrib (BMR) corn continues to be aggressively marketed by two major seed companies and produces silage with reliably higher fiber digestibility. Unfortunately, BMR corn is also reliably lower in yield – typically about 10 percent lower, but this can vary considerably depending on hybrid, soil type, fertility and moisture conditions. While some seed company reps selling BMR claim that the yield difference between BMR and conventional hybrids is narrowing, there’s limited data because BMR hybrids are included in so few university hybrid trials.
My opinion: The yield of the newest BMR hybrids may be higher, but so is the yield of the “best and brightest” conventional hybrids. As a result, if BMR’s yield drag is narrowing it’s not by much. Yet BMR puts milk in the tank! Kernel texture remains a controversial topic, with soft kernel texture promoted by one or two seed companies as having higher starch digestibility when the crop is harvested for silage. Other seed companies – and most land grant university personnel – state that kernel texture isn’t an important factor in silage hybrid selection since kernel starch is highly digestible at the recommended range of harvest maturities for corn silage.
It’s best to keep your seed corn order simple: Probably more than one hybrid unless you only have one or two fields to plant, while for most farms half a dozen hybrids with a modest range in relative maturity is plenty. Work with seed companies and their representatives that you know and trust. When I managed the crop operation at Miner Institute I relied on the results of university hybrid trials for most of our seed selection, but I’d also discuss the next year’s cropping plans with one or two seed company reps since they often have data on new hybrids not yet tested by universities. The corn hybrid maturity rating system – relative maturity (RM) – isn’t regulated by any federal agency. Therefore, the corn hybrid that one seed company labels as 98 days RM may mature several days earlier or later than a 98 RM hybrid sold by a different seed company. That’s one reason university hybrid trials that compare hybrids from a number of seed companies are so useful.
Seed corn size and grades: Theoretically there’s no yield difference between large and small seed sizes, or between round and flat seed shapes. This has been tested by universities and seed companies, and any differences they’ve found are very small. One trial some years ago found a small yield reduction when a “plateless planter” mix was used (compared with single-grade seed), but nobody could explain why this happened so I tend to discount those results. Practically, however, whether seed size and shape is a factor on your farm depends on your corn planter calibration and on your planting speed.
Finally, a few words onregarding “silage blends.” Don’t buy them – the uneven performance of silage blends, seldom consisting of the “best and brightest” hybrids the seed company has to offer, isn’t worth the lower cost.