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
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 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
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 situation.
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 our farm.
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 or
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 to manage.
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
From one farm to another,