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New hybrid traits, less land, and bad weather have put pressure on seed companies to meet the high demand for seed corn
“Parent seed and inbreds are just not as resilient as a hybrid,” Francque says. “If the weather is bad for commercial corn production, you can multiply its impact by a factor of five for seed corn production.” Weather is a concern for every farmer, but it’s magnified in the seed business.
“Seed corn producers face similar issues as other farmers,” Schrader says. “Because hybrid seed production involves crossing two seed parents, the impact of inclement weather can be exacerbated in the production process. Frost or rain during the spring can affect planting; hail, wind and high heat during the growing season can damage the crop or have a negative impact on pollination; and harvest can be impacted by rain or an early frost.”
While companies search for irrigated land and spread production over a wide geographical area to mitigate some of the weather risks, an untimely heat wave during pollination, or a hailstorm in one area, can significantly impact next year’s production.
Detasseling can be perhaps the busiest time for seed corn producers, but perhaps the most critical and most stressful time is the key pollination period. Hot weather, or a dry spell, at the wrong time can spell disaster for the seed corn crop. “Heat is no friend to pollination,” Hartung says. “And a few hot days can hammer your seed corn yield.”
Late in 2011, when reports of less-than-stellar seed corn estimates began to appear, that set in motion another round of what has become more commonplace in the industry: off-season production. Whether it is to produce a particular new hybrid, or increase production of a hybrid where inventory is short, South America, in particular, has become the go-to spot for companies.
“We have always had a modest winter plan that offers an opportunity to make minor adjustments to the total plan, if needed, and allows us to continue to bring the highest-yielding products to our customers,” Schrader says. “We also have the capability to utilize this winter production capacity to a greater extent if supply conditions warrant additional production in order to meet customer needs.”
But planting in South America also comes with its own weather risks, plus the significant expense of shipping seed back to the United States in time for spring planting.
Hartung expects business to remain brisk, and stressful. “As demand remains strong for corn acres, we will continue to be under pressure to deliver,” he says. “And it will remain a nerve-racking business.”