April 19, 2005: What variety do you like to
plant? Do you prefer open-pollinated varieties or hybrids? These
and many more questions like them fill my email inbox and occupy
my phone conversations around this time of the year. And the
answer always has to be: It depends.
Now I’ll be the first to agree that that answer is
not particularly useful and in fact can be downright frustrating.
But, it really does depend. It depends on a lot of variables.
What state are you farming in, what county, what township,
what field? Yes—even what field.
What is the soil like, what type is it, what is the slope,
the drainage, the percentage organic matter? Does the field
lie on rich bottom land or on a droughty hillside? What is
the weed pressure going to be like? Are you planting early
or late? What are your yield expectations?
All these factors and more need to enter in to answering
the question, “What variety should I plant?”
So how are you to figure all this out? Well, you could talk
to a seed salesman, or consult a few seed catalogs, or even
ask a neighbor. OR, you could do what we do at our farm, and
conduct your own variety trials. Yep, you heard me right—do
your own trials right in your own fields, with your own soil
and your own management tools, looking at your own unique
I used to read everything I could, talk to the seed salesmen,
and ask the neighbors what they were planting. Then I’d
select the seed that I thought would be the best. About three
years ago, a scientist from a university we were partnering
with on a research project asked if he could plant some seeds
from a new corn variety next to our standard corn variety
as a test . It was a droughty year, and his variety not only
out-yielded the one we were using, but produced enough bushels
to tip the balance and allowed us to make rather than lose
money on the field. That was enough to convince me I needed
to start some small variety trials of my own right here on
Since then, we’ve done corn trials, soybean trials,
and wheat trials, all with dramatic and fascinating results.
We’ve seen huge differences, for instance, among varieties
of corn and soybeans in their ability to withstand varying
amounts of weed pressure. In 2003 we saw yield differences
of between nine and 60 percent across “similar”
varieties of corn. They were all food-grade corn varieties,
and they were all planted on the same day with the same planter.
Then we hand-weeded some areas and left weeds to grow in others.
At the end of the season, the yield numbers showed that some
varieties performed equally well whether weeds were there
We did the same thing with soybeans and saw yield differences
of between seven and 54 percent. After just two years of trials,
it became very clear that these small experiments, designed
to look at varieties growing under our own management systems,
were paying off. Previously, I had always planted a soybean
variety known as HP204, a great food-grade soybean that is
reliably sought after in the marketplace. But in my variety
plots it took a beating from the weeds, showing losses of
up to 60 percent in un-weeded plots. Under the same conditions,
Iowa 3006 lost less then 10 percent of its yield potential.
Needless to say, now I plant Iowa 3006 soybeans.
In wheat we’ve noticed that when high-yielding varieties
are planted as polycultures (mixing them together in the grain
drill hopper and planting them together) as opposed to monocultures
(where we planted each variety by itself), the net return
was greater than any one of the varieties planted alone. I’m
not sure why that all works, but I am sure it means greater
profits and less risk to the farm.
This all makes a great deal of sense. Most varieties have
been produced by seed companies, who evaluate them under strict
conventional guidelines, not certified organic practices.
They’re also selected for their ability to perform across
a broad spectrum of soils, weather patterns and management
systems. But on your farm you generally have similar soils,
one weather pattern (if you're lucky) and a management system
that is unique to you. You may also have a customer base that
you can educate to accept the varieties of crops which perform
best for you.
What does this all mean for you and your farm? For me it
means variety selections can no longer be made by simply reading
the catalog or listening to the seed company rep. It means
more work for sure, but in the end I can see it means more
profit. And if, like me, you find varieties that far out-yield
others in your own system, it will be another one of those
golden nuggets of information that will make your farm easier
Drop me a note and let me know about your successes and failures
as you search for the varieties that do best on your farm,
under your conditions.
From one farm to another,