Before placing his seed order, Jim Meyer of Odebolt, IA, studied research from a new independent seed-testing group. As a result, Meyer chose three top-yielding hybrids from the group's research summary to plant on his farm this spring.

The research was conducted under a new program in Iowa called Farmer's Independent Research of Seed Technologies (FIRST). It is patterned after a FIRST program in Illinois that has conducted independent research trials for three years.

Grower interest in these programs shows that many farmers are turning to outside seed-testing sources for help in buying seed. Organizers of the Iowa FIRST program estimate that farmers used its research results to buy seed for 400,000 acres. The Illinois group distributes about 6,000 reports of its findings.

Unbiased testing Growers like Meyer want seed information from independent comparisons. "I'm not much on company information," he says. "The seed companies are in business to sell corn and I'm in business to pick the top yielders. I'd rather have people verify tests who aren't selling the corn."

During its first year, the Iowa FIRST program tested 96 different hybrids in 12 research plots around the state. The trials were replicated and randomized according to standard research methods. Fifteen companies offered hybrids to be planted in the trials. Results are summarized in a 64-page booklet.

When selecting hybrids in the past, Meyer relied heavily on other growers' experience. He also checked university research trials. This year the FIRST information played heavily in his seed selection.

"I think FIRST has a premier system for trying to duplicate outstanding corns," he says. "If you look at a comparison of the north and south halves of Iowa, the top hybrids tend to cling right up there in the top, even in different soil types.

"I see there is a thirst for information like this," he states. "Some people are concerned now that some companies finance research [at universities] out of necessity for dollars. We are concerned about purity of research."

Iowa FIRST Crop consultants Chris Clark and Byron Peters of Ida Grove, IA, licensed the rights to use the FIRST program from its developer in Illinois. In his nine years as a crop consultant, Clark learned that farmers want more independent seed testing.

The key to FIRST, Clark says, is that it evaluates a limited number of hybrids in each region through replicated and randomized tests.

"The whole idea of testing a limited number of entries is it encourages the seed companies to only enter those hybrids they know should perform within those specific geographies," Clark says. "We're not trying to test everything that is available. So really, the test is a summary in itself."

Within each plot, a hybrid is planted three different times in randomized selected strips, which are 110 ft. long and eight 30-in. rows wide. This way, the hybrid is planted next to a different hybrid every time; planting a hybrid next to the same hybrid each time can affect yield.

Six plots are located in the major soil associations of the northern part of the state, and six plots are in central Iowa.

Clark and Peters planted and harvested the plots. Their meticulous data are published in the 1999 Better Hybrids Performance Summaries. Hybrid data are summarized by region, individual site and maturity zone. The 24 or 36 top-yielding hybrids are listed, as well as the top hybrids in moisture and in income/acre. They also are sorted according to whether or not they have the Bt trait. Color photos of the top hybrids show a whole ear, cob color and kernels.

The corn also is tested for grain quality traits: protein, starch, oil, density and test weight. Results are published in the summary.

"We think the summary is what really sets us apart," Clark says. "We really try to position the summary as a complete management tool, not just a bunch of raw data that growers have to sort and sift through."

The booklet is sold to growers, crop input suppliers, farm managers, crop consultants and seed companies. A subscription includes the summary and two newsletters with information about the companies and hybrids involved. Cost is $40. Contact Iowa FIRST, Dept. FIN, 410_1/2 2nd St., Ida Grove, IA 51445, 712/364-4488.

FIRST in Illinois The FIRST program in Illinois has published three years of research results. Due to high grower interest, this program is expanding outside the state, conducting trials in southern Wisconsin and a tri-state area along the Mississippi River.

Founder Kevin Coey is adding to his consulting staff to conduct the 2000 program. They will plant and harvest six test plots in each of six regions. Each plot tests 48 to 64 hybrids, including experimental ones, from 15 to 20 companies. The group will plant and analyze about 9,000 strips.

"I find what farmers really want is to stack these hybrids side by side and see what they do when treated the same," Coey says. "The idea is to get all these seed products and the technology randomized together and let them shake out."

Coey publishes the plot results in a booklet titled Better Hybrids. It includes results of the top-performing 50% of the hybrids. During harvest, he sends out postcards, faxes and e-mails to give quick, early results.

Test results from the past three years show that seed companies generally have very good products. But farmers may be wise not to use the same hybrids from the same company every year.

"If a farmer wants to stay with one seed company, he will probably do okay," Coey says. "But it would be far better having to write more checks and deal with more companies. There are greater differences between hybrids than ever before. Dropping a few thousand more kernels or adding more fertility won't make as big a difference as selecting hybrids."

To purchase an Illinois FIRST summary for $22.50, contact Agronomic Seed Consulting Inc., Dept. FIN, Box 6675, Champaign, IL 61826, 217/356-3563.