It’s always high on any list of recommendations. No matter which researcher or agronomist you talk to, choosing the “right” hybrid for your field is always near their top of their Top 10 list for growing a more productive crop of corn.
With precision ag systems, however, is it possible to determine which hybrids perform best in specific soil types?
In an ideal world, the answer would be yes, says Pat Lynch, an independent certified crop adviser (CCA) who has spent more than 40 years helping farmers grow crops in Ontario. But since we don’t live in an ideal world, it may be better to turn to other more efficient and readily available management practices to achieve similar benefits.
“Part of the issue is the fact that hybrids have such a short life — we really can’t figure out where a hybrid’s best soil type is until it’s too late,” says Lynch, noting that typically, three years of research are required to determine the best fit. “But the average life of a hybrid is less than three years, so getting that information on soil types will be limited. And I realize the corn seed companies will give information on which are adapted to heavy soils or which are best adapted to light soils, but those are based on a root system. So we’ve got some information, but it’s not as good as we could get.”
Instead, there are other management practices that farmers could and should be implementing, and first on Lynch’s list is population. The seed companies are largely in agreement on specific hybrids for specific populations on specific soil types, or on population according to a specific situation in a field.
“And many Ontario fields have variable soil types. It’s not uncommon to go from really light, to a bunch of soils in between to really heavy — that’s typical of Ontario,” explains Lynch. “Rather than switching hybrids, which means you would need two or three, just switching the populations would be worthwhile. That’s one way we can go in 2016. The other thing — if we had the equipment that was capable of doing it — would be to plant hybrids with different seed treatments, and this year, the neonic situation really brings that to the forefront. If you have light soil, you’ll always have wireworms there, so if we could switch hybrids, we would be putting ‘this hybrid’ treated with a neonic on ‘this part of the field’ and then not treat it with neonic on another part of the field.”
This isn’t to say the technology for multi-hybrid planting doesn’t exist. Lynch agrees it does. But models such as the Monosem or Vaderstad multi-hybrid planters aren’t widespread throughout Ontario or Eastern Canada. Most growers are still governed by economic multi-functionality, possessing a planter (gravity-feed or vacuum) for corn and a drill for soybeans and cereals (or the planter for corn and soybeans and the drill for cereals).
Instead of waiting for multi-hybrid planting to get more popular, Lynch contends that it’s possible to combine existing planter application and variable-rate technologies with liquid insecticides, particularly one chemistry that’s due to come to market within the next 18 months.
“There are products in the pipeline that we could soon have, so we’d have a liquid insecticide for wireworm,” says Lynch. “When you hit a part of the field where wireworm is a problem, you turn on the liquid insecticide, and all of the seed on the light part of the field would be treated for wireworms.”
Unlike the multi-hybrid planter technology, Lynch believes adjusting planter applicator systems to do this would be fairly straightforward. It would be a matter of using the liquid starter equipment on the planter and merely substituting the insecticide.
“There is a product available, if the registration were to come through, that could be used in 2016,” he adds, noting that such a scenario is still quite a long shot. “Hopefully it would be available for 2017, and in my vision of where we’re going, it would be closer to where we’re going in the future. So that we will have areas of a field that need an insecticide for wireworms, areas of the field where the nematodes have been awfully bad, and we’ll put a nematicide on the seed through that area of the field so that we will, in effect, be doing seed treating as we plant.”
Rather than switching hybrids, growers will be switching the treatments that go on the seed, and that, states Lynch is not only exciting, but more realistic and plausible. The same thing is possible in soybeans as well. Varying population is another simple response to varying soil types, and there’s a new nematicide registered in the U.S. with consistent yield increases, solely based on its activity on nematodes. Even in the near future, Lynch believes that science and agronomists and advisers will get a better handle on specific pests in a field.
“Right now, we are using broad-spectrum pest control, believing that if we have an insect or nematode in a certain part of a field, it’s through the whole field, and that is absolutely not the case,” says Lynch, noting pest management favours more of a protective approach. “Each of these pests tends to have its own favourable environment, and it could be throughout the whole field, but in parts of the field, the levels are so low as to not be a concern. And there’s the cost of the treatment: if you only have to treat a quarter of the field it’s going to cost you less than treating the whole field.”
The same is true with corn, and Lynch believes the industry is just getting started on root stimulants. At this early stage, there’s admittedly some frustration with how they work in some circumstances but not in others, and that may be a matter of not knowing all of the influences involved. Once those are determined —where in “this” part of the field you’re going to get a yield advantage, but over “here” it might be a detriment, and that if you do the entire field, maybe it’s a break-even — then we have a better idea. But Lynch theorizes that such a point is still eight to 10 years away. Yet wireworm or nematode control is something that could be addressed in 2016.
It isn’t a statement against “big data” or advanced precision ag systems: their validity isn’t really open to debate. But in the race to incorporate these systems, many growers, agronomists and advisers may be overlooking the agronomic and management fundamentals. It’s similar to the question of shifting practices to improve on-farm efficiencies: do you try to improve one facet 10 per cent or is it easier — and better overall — to work towards improving 10 facets by one per cent each?
It still comes back to the idea of switching hybrids on-the-go and meeting with the reality that the bulk of the acres are planted using equipment that can’t make those hybrid switches efficiently.
“We did the planter clinic at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in 2015, and in one case, the tractor and planter amounted to a value of about $500,000, and in parts of the demonstration strip, they didn’t plant deep enough,” says Lynch. He adds that the response from those conducting the planting was essentially, ‘Yeah, we know, but that’s reality.’
“The point is, you can have a half-million dollars in planting equipment, but if you don’t have the basic agronomic understanding of what you’re doing, then it’s not going to work,” Lynch says. “In this case, the speed was right, the seed drop was right, the spacing was right, but it was an inch too shallow. All of these tools are good but only if put together with agronomic experience and wisdom.”
This article was originally published in the January 2016 issue of the Corn Guide