Daryl Bridenbaugh of Pandora, OH, says shopping for seed corn used to be as simple as scratching a few notes in his pocket notebook a few minutes before ordering. He'd look for the genetic package he needed in the right maturity and order it in one of the few seed sizes available.

These days his buying decision is considerably more complex. He has more seed sizes, packaging options, financing choices, and genetically engineered traits from which to choose. “I can't believe the variety,” Bridenbaugh says. “It's confusing.”

And this year, buyers will have even more options to sort through. With the science of rapid trait integration, increased competition and rising research costs, seed companies are offering more choices at a faster rate than ever before.

“We at Pioneer view the 2004 planting year as being our largest technology introduction ever,” says Jerry Harrington, Pioneer's sales and marketing public relations manager. Pioneer and other major seed companies are launching new genetically engineered traits, trait combinations and better-performing seed-applied technologies for 2004.

Although these added options enhance product selection, they will make your buying decision more complicated this year. “Now instead of choosing between maturities you are choosing between different herbicide tolerances, insect resistance traits and seed-applied technologies that didn't even exist three to four years ago,” says Greg Cannon, manager of communications and e-business for Mycogen Seeds, an affiliate of Dow AgroSciences. “And those choices are creating more combinations. One hybrid may be available in as many as four different treatment packages today.”

Growers will have to spend more time studying the options and find ways to make the best choices. “I know it is going to take me more time,” Bridenbaugh says. But seed companies promise to help.

Tougher buying decisions

Although these new options offer buyers a wider product selection, they also make the buying process more difficult for a variety of reasons. First, each new option brings hundreds of hybrid combinations through which you have to sort.

“For example, you can buy YieldGard corn borer stacked with Roundup Ready that has Poncho 250 and Intellicoat Early Plant coating on it,” says Dennis Schlott, vice president of sales and product management at Fielder's Choice. “So you can start to see the different choices farmers have now.”

Not only are there more hybrids from which to choose, but you now have alternate methods to control pests. For example, to control rootworm you can now use a seed-applied insecticide, a conventional soil-applied insecticide, or a hybrid with a Bt trait.

And within each category of control are competing brands to compare. “For the category of herbicide resistance, there's Roundup Ready, LibertyLink or Clearfield,” Schlott says. “And for corn borer resistance, there's YieldGard and Herculex. Which should I choose?”

Growers also need to consider regulations for insect resistance management, Schlott adds. Because of the risk of the crop developing resistance to the corn borer Bt trait, you can't plant 100% of your acres to an insect-resistant hybrid. And you will need to find alternate products to control the pest for your refuge acres. “So there's a whole host of things you need to think about,” Schlott says.

Finally, some trait hybrids are not approved for export. You need to make sure the hybrids you plant will have a market before buying.

What you can do

As a result of these issues, you will have to make changes in the way you buy seed corn this year to make the best choices. Here's what seed companies are recommending you do.

Do extra homework

Because there are more products to consider, you'll have to budget more time for studying each one. Information is available through a variety of sources. For instance, all the seed companies publish catalogs of their newest offerings and technologies. And university extension services and third-party Web sites such as CMS post comparisons of seed brands along with explanations of the latest technologies.

Tom Strachota, CEO of Dairyland Seed, says the best way to select hybrids is to review multilocation, multiyear performance data. “Some genetics are more stable year to year, while others are the headline grabbers, which may not be as strong year in and year out,” he says. You then can use spreadsheets and statistical tools to predict the best product for your conditions.

Remember seed quality

Keep in mind the overall quality of the seed in addition to the individual traits it offers, Strachota says. “It is important not to overlook the two basic fundamentals of sound product selection — genetics and seed quality,” he says. “If they are handled correctly by your seed supplier, you will have good success.”

Research grain-marketing options

The American Seed Trade Association is sponsoring a Market Choices campaign, which identifies hybrids that are fully approved for food and feed use in the U.S. and Japan but are not approved in the European Union. The association's Web site at www.amseed.org has a database of elevator names that will accept genetically modified products.

To help educate growers and seed suppliers about grain-channeling restrictions, the National Corn Growers' Association is sponsoring an information service called “Know before you grow” at www.ncga.com.

Buy early

You may want to move up your seed ordering from February to October or November to ensure you get the options you want. “Because there are so many options, the number of units produced per product is narrowed,” Pioneer's Harrington says. “The earlier you get your order in, the better chance you'll have to get what you want. And there are incentives to order early.”

Partner with seed companies

All of the seed companies say that this step is critical. Seed suppliers can provide direct access to information and guide you through it, let you interact with someone who knows the genetics, and manage the records you need to meet channeling requirements.

“The successful farmers who are being able to navigate through all of this information are able to do it because they are using the resource of the local seed supplier,” says Steve Klein, director of sales and marketing for Garst Seed. “They can really help work through all of the information and options available and select the best product.”

You may eventually reduce your number of seed suppliers as a way to limit information. Jim Shearl, executive vice president, Golden Harvest Seed, says, “The more you bounce around, the more fragmented your cropping plan becomes and the more it is on your shoulders to come up with all the answers.”

What suppliers are doing

Seed companies are doing their part to help you make the best buy for your farm. Here's just a sampling of what they provide.

Better trained field staff

The major seed companies have stepped up training of their field staff in order to pass on the latest agronomic knowledge to their customers. The goal at many of these companies is to have 100% of their sales force trained as Certified Crop Advisors (CCAs).

Call centers

Some seed companies, such as Monsanto, have opened their phone lines so customers can call with questions about their seed purchase options. Fielder's Choice operates exclusively through a call center that is open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time and 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays to give customers access to information. Lines are staffed by employees who are highly trained by the developers of the seed-applied technology and transgenic traits.

Electronic communication

Seed salespeople are making use of their laptops to help make customized seed recommendations. For example, Pioneer's sales reps have access to the company's Field Information Mapping system, an electronic communication system that lets them map your fields and make recommendations or analysis of hybrids and varieties. Another tool called Agricultural Information System features agronomic information that reps can use to support their recommendations.

Improved databases

To handle all the inventories from the different seed options available, companies have implemented centralized databases and real-time inventory systems that allow customers to know which hybrids and technologies are available at any point in time.

Databases also are being used to manage technology records. For example, Mycogen Seeds has launched an e-business site called MLink for dealer ordering. Once an order is placed, the system manages the information on licenses and marketing and grower-use agreements required for compliances.

Better Web sites

Seed companies are using the Internet to distribute more information faster. The major seed companies have Web sites that give up-to-date product descriptions and performance characteristics. Other available features include e-mail connections with local sales reps, product performance comparisons, ordering and payment capabilities, and customer access to their accounts so they can pay bills or check their balances.

Dairyland Seed updates its Web site, www.dairylandseed.com, with new data throughout the fall showing head-to-head comparisons with other popular brands to show which brands perform consistently. “This is quite a task with thousands of plots and all these hybrids,” says Dairyland's Strachota. “But it's a great way to disseminate information quickly during the decision-making process.”

And Garst Seed has a new Web tool called Personalized Product Literature (PPL) that reps can use to tailor literature guides for customers in a specific region. “Sales reps can go to our Web site, click on PPL and develop a select list of products that they can go to a grower and say, ‘These are the products that would perform best for you,’” explains Garst Seed's Klein.

More product literature

Companies are publishing more support materials to clarify growers' seed options. For example, Mycogen Seeds' 2004 Seed Guide, four times as big as it was five years ago, features a positioning guide that outlines factors such as soil types, rotation, and method of tillage to help you narrow your selection. It also gives customized recommendations and features icons for each different trait option to allow for quick comparisons of traits.

Golden Harvest publishes product guides called Profit Planners, which are essentially written spreadsheets showing the hybrid, trait, heat units, relative maturity and recommended planting population and ties it to the potential yield advantage of a particular hybrid combination so you can calculate your return.

Marc Hennen, corn marketing manager for Syngenta Seeds, says the company provides additional educational material for its NK brand hybrid customers, including a new brochure detailing the various insects and comparing the protection levels of the various seed treatment offerings. Winter grower meetings put on by Syngenta's agronomy staff also focus on understanding the new options.

More choices coming

Although you will have more options to sort through in 2004, seed companies remind that the options are designed to help you get the most value from each acre of land.

Mycogen Seeds' Cannon says, in the future, you can expect more choices rather than fewer ones because the pipeline for new products is wider than it used to be. “Increases in research efforts and technical capabilities will allow companies like Mycogen more products at a faster rate,” he says. “So growers can expect more choices rather than less.”

Even though the choices can seem overwhelming, seed corn buyer Daryl Bridenbaugh says he is grateful to have them. “That's America for you, at its best,” he says. And already he is depending more on his seed dealer to walk him through the choices. “If you give them time, they'll tell you everything they know,” he says.

Soybean buying simpler

Buying soybeans is simpler than buying seed corn because not as many variations of the technologies are available. According to Dion McBay, soybean marketing manager at Asgrow and DeKalb, other than the availability of seed treatments, only one biotech trait dominates the soybean market. “More than 85% of all new units sold are Roundup Ready,” McBay says. “There are some sulfonylurea tolerant varieties sold, too. But those are predominately planted for double cropping wheat.”

Both Roundup Ready and STS technologies were introduced in 1996 and became highly commercial in 1997. Since that time there have been few additions to seed companies' lineups due to new technology.

However, seed selection in soybeans is still a critical decision because it will determine your yield potential for that year. To choose the variety that best fits your farm, McBay says you have to understand your growing environment, what yield you are targeting, and what the yield propensity is for your farm. “If you have a history of diseases and pests on that farm, you should look for a variety that has been progressively bred to offer both high yield and pest resistance,” he says.

McBay encourages growers to make a selection based not only on yield but also quality attributes. To that end, Monsanto has joined with the United Soybean Board and American Soybean Association to raise awareness of the importance of selecting soybean varieties with the right quality composition to keep U.S. soybeans competitive globally. “Processors are purchasing the bushels from the farmers to generate as much oil or protein as possible,” McBay says. “So yield and quality should be the two main focuses for farmers as they are choosing their varieties.”