YOU'RE SPECIAL, just like everyone else. The same idea applies to farms. Although every farm is unique, yours is not quite as special as you might like to think. That simple fact, paired with the laws of probability, means that instead of choosing your winning cultivar from last year, you'll probably make more income per acre with products that performed best over an average of several locations over a wide area. University of Minnesota agronomist Dale Hicks has been trying to get this message out to Corn Belt farmers for more than a decade.

“Farmers can easily buy into the idea that the best source of hybrid or variety information is data from their individual farm,” Hicks says. “Picking winners out of your backyard seems intuitively correct, but according to our research, the conventional wisdom is wrong when it comes to picking the right corn or soybean cultivars.”

Hicks says research has consistently shown that taking the average best-yielding corn hybrids and soybean varieties from a wide, multicounty area will significantly beat picking the winners from your field last year. In one representative study, picking the average best two or three soybean varieties over a wide area resulted in yields that were 6% higher than average over seven years. Picking two or three varieties from the individual farm beat the average by only 2%. Similar results were achieved with corn.

“Our extensive analysis shows the best hybrids and varieties to choose are the ones that yield best over a several-location average,” Hicks says. “Most years, they will outyield the winners from your field or your next-door neighbor's field.”

Hicks points out that some of the best scientifically based data are free from universities and seed companies. “These sources use replicated small plots, which give the most reliable information,” he says. “The idea put forth by some grower groups, that small plots don't translate to results in big fields, is simply nonsense.” He recommends supplementing company and university yield data by attending field days to learn why products perform the way they do. “Losing focus on field days is a big mistake,” Hicks says. “But fewer and fewer farmers go to them.”

Seed agronomist perspective

Stephen Smith, Mycogen agronomy services manager, says that market research shows that farmers get most of their agronomic information from seed dealers/ag retailers, then neighbors, farm magazines, and finally university extension.

“I hope farmers aren't depending too much on their neighbors or their own on-farm yield data,” Smith says. “A traditional farmer plot simply does not give an accurate picture of actual product performance because it is not replicated. One show plot is not a reliable indicator.”

Smith challenges growers to come to field events with an objective. That includes preparing some questions to ask and trying to understand what products fit best on their farms. “Product positioning is a big factor to consider, and that is where getting out to field days can offer more than just looking at yield data,” Smith says. “Side-by-side plots let you see things like relative height, emergence, maturity, ear type and response to plant populations against many products in the field. Once you know about the characteristics, you should then ask, ‘So what? How does this benefit me?’ And make sure to take good notes and follow through by checking the yield data on those plots.”

Seed companies are adapting to farmers' information needs. For example, Smith says, far more time is spent in one-on-one meetings with one grower, a sales representative and a company agronomist. Smaller groups tend to be more convenient for the farmer and offer a better opportunity to get particular questions answered. “We also produce a Virtual Plot Tour CD ROM for our dealers to use as a tool when they are talking though field challenges with their customers,” Smith says. “Our first version came out last year and version two is ready for 2005.”

Format is just part of how farmer-company interaction has changed over the last five years. Farmers are still looking for yield but now react more to problems like diseases and insect pests. A complete system that can solve their challenges may include traits like Liberty and glyphosate herbicide tolerance, Bt traits for insect control, seed treatments, and granular and liquid pesticides. “This is all part of an integrated resistance management (IRM) program that uses many tools to keep growers one step ahead of resistant pest problems,” Smith says.

Chemical agronomist perspective

Dave Lamore, senior technical service representative for Bayer CropScience, agrees that farmer focus has changed. “I think university plots are underutilized by farmers,” he says. “Many farmers I've talked to say they don't come to the university events because they are too busy taking care of their larger farms. And if they do have some downtime, usually the last thing they want to do is look at more crops.”

Lamore confirms that, meanwhile, chemical companies don't present as many farmer field days as they used to because they have fewer products to talk about. Lamore says he spends much of his time with crop consultants and universities instead.

“Genetically modified hybrids have changed everything except that Mother Nature continues to adapt,” Lamore says. Environmental restrictions are limiting options on atrazine in some areas. Farmers must look for innovative ways to keep up with nature's adaptations. “Resistant weeds, spider mites and soybean aphids are some urgent problems we're facing now,” Smith continues. “Next year it might be soybean rust or something totally unexpected. Field days are one of the best ways to see how the available tools work to solve problems in the field. And when you see with your own eyes that a system works in several locations, that's the best indication that it will work on your farm too.”

TEAMFIN FIELD NOTES

PAUL GERVAIS TRACY, MN

I go to some winter meetings and summer meetings. Some of my favorites focus on no-till, strip-till and zone tillage. I go to a lot of reactionary events, such as when there is a problem like aphids or rust to deal with. I typically go to seed company test plots at the end of August and in early September. It's company line stuff, but usually at least 10% of the information is very useful, which makes it worthwhile to attend. I haven't gone to a university event in several years.

Sometimes good information is worth paying for. Hefty Seed Company meetings, for example, cost $50 to $125. It's not hard to justify the fee if it saves me from making one mistake in the field. Hefty has a number of interesting programs, from agronomy to finance, and even meetings tailored specifically to women who want to get more involved in the farming operation. It's not all product promotion.

DALE KOESTER WADESVILLE, IN

Field days aren't a priority of mine. I find that I learn more from talking to other farmers than going to sponsored events, and a lot of that interaction is via cell phone and e-mail these days. With companies, I find sitting down one-on-one with someone is much more efficient in finding what works for my farm. If I have time, I will go to a wheat meeting that extension puts on every year. About 5% of information I get at field days is typically useful to me.

JEFF RYAN CRESCO, IA

It's fairly rare when I attend field days (one or two per year), but that's because of past experiences with them. Too many field days are simply another commercial for the company — be it genetics or herbicide. The ones I am more inclined to attend are either state extension-sponsored meetings or producer-group meetings — things like county corn grower associations or Practical Farmers of Iowa.

The thing I look for at field days is differences. If it's a demonstration plot on different production practices, I'd like to physically see the differences. Stuff that jumps out at you tends to make an impression and causes you to make changes in your own operation.

ERIK PETRY ROCHELLE, IL

I've helped host field events for products ranging from automated steering systems for a tractor to corn and soybean seed as a seed dealer for Monsanto. As a farmer, I tend to go to field days to learn about the latest products and usually find the quality and credibility of the information to be very good. At least half of the information is usually very useful to me. I typically don't go to university field days because there typically aren't any being held at a convenient distance from my farm.

Even if you don't buy the products, I think any company field day is worth it because you usually learn about things that are not being promoted. Also, I would attend a field day put on by the “major players” in agriculture, such as Monsanto. They've developed all the latest technology such as Roundup Ready crops and rootworm-resistant and corn borer-resistant corn.