The job of selecting corn hybrids for 2015 silage production will be more difficult for many farmers in New York and New England. Pennsylvania farmers will still have the Penn State corn silage hybrid trial results to use, but most of the hybrids entered in these trials are 100-day relative maturity (RM) and later. Farmers in northern areas of the region typically plant corn hybrids in the 85 to 95-day RM range. Previously, they had the results of Cornell University corn silage hybrid trials to use as a guide, but a combination of equipment and labor problems resulted in Cornell planting none of these trials in 2014. I’m not sure what will happen with these trials in 2015 and beyond, but what I hear isn’t encouraging.

Where will farmers go for information?

One of the New England states could pick up the ball, but agricultural college budgets are badly strained and it’s hard for most departments to maintain current programs, let alone begin a new (and fairly expensive) one. It’s expensive because corn silage trials must go beyond yield and include quality assays, such as starch level and fiber digestibility, to be useful to dairy farmers. One of the few state universities conducting corn silage hybrid trials that include 90-day RM hybrids is the University of Wisconsin. However, while you may recognize a few of the hybrids you planted in 2014 when the Wisconsin trial results are published in the coming months, don’t look for many entries by regional seed companies selling in the northeastern market.

Another option is to examine corn grain trials and choose from among the top yielders. However, in the results of Cornell’s 2013 early-maturity hybrid trials, you’ll look hard to find any national seed companies included – not sure yet what was planted in 2014. This isn’t Cornell’s fault, since they can only include what the seed companies enter in the trials.

Some local and regional seed company representatives plant corn hybrid trials, occasionally including a few from their competitors. However, it’s important to understand what these trials can tell you – and what they cannot. Almost all of these trials are non-replicated, meaning several rows of each hybrid are planted, but each hybrid is represented only once. Therefore, if a hybrid at one end of the test plot looks particularly good, is it because it’s a very good hybrid or because it’s planted on better soils, or where a heavier rate of manure was applied last fall? Note the term “looks good,” because we almost never see quality data from these demonstration plots. Sometimes the seed company rep determines yield, but more often the plots are intended for visual inspection only. One piece of information you can take from these trials is relative maturity, especially if the trial was planted in a timely manner. If hybrid A is much later than hybrid B in the seed company trial, it’s likely that it would mature later on your farm as well. Without any quality data, you’re still a long way from determining which hybrids are best for silage production.

Relying on seed company data

A reputable seed dealer has always been a good source of information on the hybrids he or she sells, but you can’t expect the rep to be a good source of information for hybrids sold by other seed companies. By working with two or more seed companies, you may be able to come up with enough yield and quality data to make a somewhat informed choice; “somewhat,” because nothing can beat replicated yield and quality data. However, if you’ve been planting a certain hybrid and the seed company rep says a new hybrid is a significant improvement, that may be good enough.

Your fields as mini research stations

If you can’t get silage hybrid data from public sources, you might be able to plant a hybrid trial on your farm. The advantage would be determining how the trial hybrids perform on your soils using your management. For a trial to be useful, consider the following:

1. Don’t plant hybrids of widely varying relative maturities. In many cases, the hybrids you normally plant shouldn’t be more than about 10 days apart in relative maturity – for example, from 88 to 98-day RM – so that’s what should be included in the trial.

2. Watch seed size. Some planters will plant small round seeds at a much higher rate than larger seeds, and you could wind up comparing two entries that differ by 10,000 or more plants per acre. It’s possible to limit these differences by recalibrating your corn planter between hybrids.

3. Limit the number of hybrids tested. My suggestion would be to test no more than six hybrids. Choose several that you liked this year, plus a few (not necessarily all from the same company) that the seed company reps highly recommend.

4. A single strip of each hybrid will give a good idea on maturity and perhaps tell you something about yield (though plant height can be deceiving); planting three or four strips of each hybrid is better. Choose a level, productive field with as much uniformity as possible – but even so, don’t expect a single strip of a hybrid to tell you much about comparative yield.

5. If you’re serious about a silage trial, consider taking a representative sample from each entry and submitting it to a forage lab. I wouldn’t bother with minerals, so a near infrared (NIR) package is fine, such as the ones offered by Dairy One and Cumberland Valley Analytical Services. The more replications (test strips) you do, the more reliable the data.