A trip back in time gives us this glimpse of a promotional mailer from the Reist Seed Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Costing the company 2 cents to mail, it’s basically a simple fold of a card-stock quality of paper with black ink and a red seal. Nothing special. And it includes the actual seed prices. That kind of information today, in the year 2020, is a guarded secret. Competitive intel like that, especially if discovered early in the sales season, causes marketing specialists to drool on themselves. This particular one is dated August 15th. Announcing prices in August would be extraordinarily early for any of today’s seed corn companies.
Notice that both open pollinated varieties and hybrids were available, but at a price difference of roughly $3 per bushel sack of seed. It was well established by the mid-1940s that significant yield increases could be realized planting hybrid seed. Perhaps the adoption curve was not quite as strong in some regions so both types were still offered after WWII. Also of interest is the availability of “early husking” varieties (this would likely include existing hybrids that have the characteristics that make an ear of corn suitable for hand husking, such as high ear placement, excellent standability and loose husks).
Lastly, the offering of formaldehyde and tobacco dust can not go unnoticed. These types of “pesticides” seem foreign today but are unique to an era that was growing by leaps and bounds in the post-war era and did so without much government oversight. I must admit, however, that I have no idea how one applies tobacco dust!
So many folks came before us. In reverence, I always find it fascinating to look back and study the progression of technology.
Folks who sell seed corn for a living often get excited about sharing photos or actual specimens of their products – for example, ears of a new corn hybrid. Some braggadocio is expected but any grower with experience knows they are NOT showing off the average ear. In a survey of 1,000 growers, I would guess that 999 would scoff at an ear sample or ear photo presented to them by a seeds salesman believing it to be typical of any field environment (the 1 true believer likely being a family relative). They know full well that the sales person walked into the field, scouted around for an abnormally large ear, and then brought it out proclaiming it the savior of corn production ills across the fruited plains.
Hey, we’re a competitive bunch! The competition does it all the time and we’re not going to just stand by and let it go. If they post a photo of 22 rows around, then, by God, we’ll post one with 24. Test weight of 62, you say? How about my hybrid that went 63 in the plot? This one-upsmanship can get a little annoying but in small doses keeps it interesting. In large doses, you’re just being a used car salesman and nobody’s interested. Building excitement and creating momentum is part of sales. We want customers, existing and prospects, to notice and hopefully ask about the very products we’re bragging about.
One of the key principles in seedsmanship is representing products honestly. Is cherry picking ears dishonest? Maybe in the purest sense, but most seedsmen (male and female) know that it’s okay when presented with context. The ear with 22 rows and 60 kernels per row that magically appeared after just a few minutes in a corn field will always be met with skepticism and an eye roll. But when you admit that you picked the best you could find, most folks take the ear sample to represent its genetic potential. That’s right – if the environment is just right, a lot of ears could look like this. Experience shows that his type of presentation can generate a lot of interest from growers. Keep it exciting but keep it honest!
In the ear collection photo above, the author shared with readers that he chose the largest ears of each hybrid. The experienced eye can’t help but be impressed. Image 35,000 of these ears per acre? If that were the case, yields would probably eclipse 400 bu/a. But imagine if he collected the smallest ears he could find. If the largest ears represent genetic potential then what do the smallest ones represent? You got it – the genetic potential to be small. The combination of small, medium and large ears in a field is what a grower harvests. That’s the reality of fields with varying soil types. Agronomists make a living trying to minimize the number of small ears and maximize the number of large ones.
Salesmanship is one thing. Sales support is another. Service calls are part of the business. Growers may send you pictures or bring you ears of corn and perhaps a complaint about performance. While the seedsman can be criticized for cherry picking, in a way, so can the grower. Often in my career, a customer has brought ears that were cherry picked to exaggerate the field condition. This is somewhat understandable as poor product performance can be emotional and will certainly have a negative impact on profitability. But in all my years of working in the seed industry, the field is rarely as bad as the ears that were presented to me. But they did get my attention – which is what cherry picking is all about!
It may not have the same feeling as the arrival of the Sears Catalog back in the old days, but the 2020-21 Pioneer Hi-Bred catalog has just been published. Different from yesteryear, this catalog comes to you digitally – as a PDF file. The print version will still be available for those that prefer to sit down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a pair of reader glasses and leisurely browse through the newest hybrids and varieties. The PDF version provided below is great for use on smart devices where you can zoom in to see the small print and digitally “flip” through the pages. (Note: this catalog version is for South, Central and North Texas and Oklahoma.)
I know, having a seed catalog available in August seems early. The thing is, for those of us further to the south, planting begins as early as January and grain harvest is nearly over by August. So, with plot results and field data fresh at hand, reviewing and talking about what to plant next year in late August and September is not unreasonable.
Nearly everything is here in this catalog – Corn (grain and silage), soybeans, sorghum (grain and forage), alfalfa, sunflowers, inoculants and seed treatments. Even the major crop protection products offered by Corteva Agriscience are included. Twenty pages of full bliss from an all-American company!
For students of salesmanship and marketing, I encourage you to compare the 2020 catalog to the 1946 catalog that I highlighted a few blogs ago. The formatting, photos, vernacular, etc. are quite different. Publishing styles and technologies have certainly changed over nearly 75 years – along with prices and yield.
It won’t be long before your sales representative visits again. Study the new catalog before he or she arrives. Be prepared – have your farm data available with field by field summaries if possible. Yield data from local plots may also be helpful and can be viewed at Pioneer.com (no, we don’t win them all). And don’t be afraid to ask for input from the Pioneer agronomist. Rumor has it that they’re very knowledgeable.
(Note: I’m an agronomist working across the fruited plains of Oklahoma and down through north, central and south Texas. This blog is specific to that geography.)
Corn, specifically continuous corn (monoculture), is predominantly found throughout central Texas. These acres can host two major corn rootworm species: Mexican Corn Rootworms and Southern Corn Rootworms. Other areas tend to have more crops in rotation – sorghum and cotton to the south and pasture and alfalfa to the north – and have fewer incidents of crop damage from rootworms. Yes, wheat is grown throughout the region and can break the lifecycle if taken to grain but likely not if planted back to corn after being cut for wheatlage/silage (which is done primarily in the dairy-concentrated area around Stephenville, TX.)
The main rootworm specie that causes the most damage is the Mexican Corn Rootworm (MCRW). Without adequate control, it can cause significant economic damage nearly every year that corn is grown continuously. Yield damage can be as much as 40 bu/a or more and is manifested in lodged, stressed plants and reduced ear size. Fortunately for growers, insecticidal Bt traits control this pest. In the absence of traits, planter-based insecticide applications and some seed treatments can provide control, albeit sometimes limited under high pest pressure. Growers can easily scout for adult beetles around pollination time and assess potential damage for the following year’s crop. (I know, I know, it’s hot that time of year and nobody wants to be in corn field when it’s over 100 degrees. Trust me on this, it’s worth it!)
The other rootworm specie that can cause damage is the SouthernCorn Rootworm (SCRW). While the MCRW can be an annual pest, SCRW might be a problem one in only seven or eight years. Unlike the MCRW, outbreaks can not be predicted since it has so many hosts and overwinters as an adult rather than as larvae. The thing to remember about SCRW is that no commercially available Bt traits in 2020 have any effect on them. The primary form of control is insecticidal seed treatments.
Unfortunately, having a name in common with the other rootworm species makes it easy to think that plant-based Bt traits should control the SCRW but it is an exception that can be an absolute thorn in a grower’s side. It can be expensive to add seed treatments. Sure enough, the year the grower decides not to spend the money on controlling SCRW, there’s an outbreak and replant is needed in several fields, resulting in added expense and potentially reduced yields. UGH!
There are several websites, extension publications, seed industry articles, etc. on these pests. Should you like more information or have other questions, don’t hesitate to holler at me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Going through some files I came across a summary that I had put together about the adoption rate of hybrid corn in Greene County, Iowa. It was based on a survey of growers that asked about the factors that influenced them to use hybrid seed (versus saved seed from open pollinated plants) and how long it took for them to plant it on all their acres.
This summary is adapted from a 1943 article, The Diffusion of Hybrid Seed Corn in Two Iowa Communities and was published in Rural Sociology by authors B. Ryan and N. Gross. Here are their basic findings:
The authors surveyed 257 farmers to explore how they first learned about hybrid corn, the sources from which they gathered information about the merits and performance of hybrid seed and how long it took for them to adopt it on 100% of their acreage.
On average, it took approximately five years to adopt hybrid corn after first learning of it. After first using it on the farm, it took only about three years to adopt it on 100% of their acreage.
The farmers “original” knowledge, or awareness, of hybrid corn came primarily from salesmen (49% of the farmers cited salesmen), neighbors (14.6%), Farm Journal magazine (10.7%), radio advertising (10.3%), relatives (3.5%) and the Extension Service (2.8%).
The farmers “most influential” source for causing them to plant hybrid corn were the neighbors (45.5% citing them as most influential) with salesmen a relatively close second (32.0%). All other sources registered less than 7%.
80% of the adoption of hybrid corn occurred in approx. 5 years, from 1933 to 1939 (see figure below).
Very few technologies in any sector of life see an adoption rate like this. It is quite remarkable, really. Similar acceptance was seen with specific biotech traits in plants but readers will be hard pressed to list many others, especially in agriculture. Horses to tractors? Nitrogen fertilizer usage after WWII? Atrazine or 2,4-D in the 1950s or 1960s? Wouldn’t it be fun to sit down with Dad or Grandpa and hear about what they experienced?
There are countless books and articles in the public domain about hybrid corn. The people, the seed, the science – it’s all out there for the curious to consume. Enjoy!
Hybrid corn is the result of a cross of inbred parents – a male that provides the pollen and the female that produces silks and ultimately the ear. The ear is then processed through a series of steps in large seed production plants. For North America, most of the production fields are scattered throughout three or four states in the Midwest region. This is done to allow handling of large volumes of various hybrids and to spread out risk associated with damaging weather events.
The technologies involved in this process are fascinating and complex and have evolved over time. For brands like Pioneer and Dekalb, sales have increased substantially since they entered the business in the 1920s – from a few dozen bushel sacks of seed in the beginning to several million bags and boxes in North America alone. When you consider that hybrid seed production can be much less than half of commercial grain production, you realize the scale in acres and processing that are needed to source farmers their seed for planting season.
Because of the Midwestern location of most production fields and processing plants, most growers across the south and southwest have never seen a seed production plant or the processes involved. The production plants can be very large and use sophisticated scheduling and throughput strategies to ensure efficiency but yet with a final goal of producing high quality seed. It is never lost on production plant employees that seed is a living organism. It has to be handled in a way that allows growers to plant it five or more months later with the expectation of near perfect germination and growth.
Pioneer Hi-Bred (Corteva AgriScience) has created an animation (see below) that shows the steps involved in processing hybrid seed corn. Different from commercial corn grain production, hybrid seed corn is harvested on the ear, complete with husk (similar to sweet corn) with grain moisture that is often over 40 percent. Special harvesters load trucks with whole ears and the trucks then transport them to the processing plant. After a myriad of processes, high quality seed is bagged or boxed and stored in refrigeration. There, it awaits a customer order after which it’s shipped to the seed dealership or direct to the farm.
Obviously there’s a great deal of expense and expertise involved. Pioneer Hi-Bred holds several patents for processes and machinery that are highly specialized. It’s a source of pride knowing that very few issues arise due to seed quality issues. Production goals are high with seed germination almost always in the mid to high 90s (percent of seed that germinates) for seed corn. Of course, the environment in which the seed is planted can have a significant impact on germination and early season growth, but Pioneer Hi-Bred has done everything it can up to that point to ensure success.
(I enjoy history, especially that of the seed industry. Every once in a while I will scan a catalog and offer up a .PDF version for your enjoyment.)
Stepping back in time, here’s the seed catalog for the year following the end of World War II. You’ll find on page 2 (inside of the cover page), the mention of William Landgren. I thought it was very kind and professional of Pioneer to include the name of a staff member who was still serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. While folks at home were taking care of business, so too were William and thousands of others that served. I’m proud that they chose to include him in the catalog.
When William returned to Pioneer, it was the beginning of a grand era of American agriculture. New advancements in farm equipment, pesticides and other inputs were exciting as resources that were severely limited for wartime support were now made available for public consumption. Rubber tires and steel are good examples of this. The economy boomed as did seed sales to support the return to full time farming.
The seed catalogs from the 1940s and 50s (other companies included) are some of my favorites. Almost all included images of full-size ears so that customers could see the shape and quality of the seed. Throughout the 1940s, corn was still being husked by hand so farmers were still interested in ear shape and husk cover. Modern catalogs might include pictures of field scenes but rarely will they include images of ears. Lets be honest, seed companies today sell dozens of hybrids and there just isn’t room. We have to leave enough space for other stuff – replant policies, digital resources, sales program information, seed treatments, insect and herbicide traits, research advancements, etc. Also, we sell more than corn; there’s also sorghum, soybeans, wheat, sunflowers, canola, alfalfa and silage inoculants. Unless we want to return to the days of the Sears catalog, you can understand why catalogs have evolved into a series of tables and charts. Websites and social media platforms are where you find the images. (Are you familiar with @Pioneeragronomo on Twitter?)
Check out the characteristics table on pages 8 and 9. Most notable is the “EARS PER STALK” row in the bottom section of the table. Optimum populations for hybrid corn in the 1940s was between 15,000 to 19,000 plants per acre. For at least 75 years, hybrid corn has almost always produced just one ear on the stalk. Hybrids 322 and 355 sometimes put on two! Remember, also, that the common row spacing back then was 40 inches.
What’s refreshing throughout this catalog is the upfront honesty in describing the hybrids. For hybrid 373, “occasionally subject to stalk breaking in late fall… For hybrid 379, “occasionally root lodges.” A sales representative today practicing good seedsmanship will inform customers of potential weaknesses but almost no company will say it directly in print. (Rather, you can infer a product weakness by looking at the ratings.) Know this – many a customer will show loyalty to a brand and to their local sales rep that continues to support their well being by providing sound, honest knowledge of the products.
Another notable mention in this catalog is that of corn rootworms. In the lower left corner of page 6 that describes hybrid 353-A, there’s a picture of Karl Jarvis, pathologist, standing by a “valuable” plant that withstood severe corn rootworm conditions. I’ve never really thought about how long the Corn Belt region has had to battle this pest. Evidently, it’s been a very long time! It’s an interesting pest that now infests cropland across a large area of North America and more recently Europe.
Finally, folks are sometimes surprised at just how long replant policies have been provided by seed companies (see the back cover of the catalog). Frankly, they’ve been offered almost from the beginning of hybrid seed sales – either as part of a competitive strategy or out of kindness and understanding of how brutal Mother Nature can sometimes be. Over time, customers have come to appreciate this policy as replanting can be very expensive and stressful, to say the least.
Feel free to share this catalog with others and enjoy the history behind one of the oldest brands in American agriculture – Pioneer Hi-Bred.
After six years and 5,000+ followers on Twitter (of which one-fourth were women and bots who mistakenly thought agronomists were wealthy), and a change in job responsibilities, I decided it was time to refocus my energies on social media. Frankly, I wanted to separate personal life from work and give others an opportunity to step up and take the lead on providing agronomic expertise for the growers. Too, as followers grew, I found myself spending entirely too much time muting and blocking folks that were basically trolling, getting threads completely off target and otherwise wasting my time. So I shut down my main Twitter account (@texasagronomo), set up a new one for my woodworking hobby (@tejaswoodworker) and set about refocusing my role on social media platforms.
So we start anew with @Pioneeragronomo in a new job role – that as Product Agronomist covering from Oklahoma to the Rio Grande Valley. This account will continue to support Pioneer Hi-Bred (@PioneerSeeds) and Corteva AgriScience (@CortevaUS) and will focus only on agronomy. Nothing else. And, based on previous experience, I will be quicker to mute or block the drama queens and non-believers in Pioneer genetics and won’t bat an eye or lose a second of sleep in doing so.
Pioneer Hi-Bred (founded 1926) long ago established itself as a premier educator and creator of educational materials about most things dealing with crop breeding and plant growth and development. Printed material and various other formats have been used over the years to share information with growers. Since the early 1930s, numerous seed catalogs and pamphlets, or booklets, have been published by Pioneer Hi-Bred. This blog highlights one published in 1950 – The Corn Plant of Today.
Countless publications, videos and web pages can be found that describe the corn plant. Information on growth stages, management strategies, diagnostic guides, research papers, etc., can be found with a quick search on the internet. But, in 1950, knowledge was found only in people and printed materials made available through the cooperative extension service of land grant colleges, USDA agricultural agencies and private industry such as Pioneer Hi-Bred.
Collaborative efforts often lead to private industry publishing pamphlets with joint authorship with university extension specialists and professors of various disciplines. The Corn Plant of Today is a classic example. It was written by Edgar Anderson of Washington University who was a highly respected and published botanist. What I enjoy most about this booklet is its casual presentation – it feels like you’re having a conversation with a botanist! He makes the reader consider questions about what a corn plant should look like. It’s the same question breeders are always asking of customers and agronomists. As in, “does today’s corn plant meet the needs of the grower?”
They’re violent, loud, dangerous, destructive and often are precursors to tornadoes. Hail storms. The average hail storm lasts less than a couple of minutes but depending on the intensity and size of hail stones, damage can vary from barely noticeable to total crop destruction.
Hail damage to crops basically comes down to these questions – will the plants survive and, if so, will yield be affected? In my experience, more so for corn, the most noticeable effects of hail damage are three-fold: twisting of the leaf canopy, leaf loss, and stem bruising.
Twisting of the leaf canopy is the result of leaves being shredded by hail stones with the shredded remnants being wrapped or twisted by excessively strong winds. (This phenomenon is more prevalent in young corn, usually V6 or smaller.) The reason this can impact plant survival is that the newly emerging leaves in the whorl can’t advance as the plant recovers. Survival rates of plants can improve if the dying, twisted leaves can somehow detach from the plant, making emergence of the new leaves possible. The impact on yield depends on plant death (stand loss) and distribution down the rows (plants that recover quicker can shade out and out-compete adjacent plants.)
Leaf loss is the most obvious effect of hail on plants. The leaves are the photosynthetic factory – capturing sunlight and converting it to energy that supports plant growth. Believe it or not, there are times when complete leaf loss will not impact yield. Such is the case in corn where leaf loss up to about V3 is not detrimental. Reason being, this is before ear development commences and the plant is still dependent on the seminal root system for support.
Whorl or stem bruising is often overlooked in assessing hail damage. Hail stones are dense and hard. Young corn plants, however, are tender – very little lignin formation has occurred and so a somewhat rigid stalk rind has yet to develop. As the winds bend over the stalks, the lower sections are exposed and vulnerable to being struck by hail stones. The thing to remember is that the growing point is near or above the soil surface around V5 or V6. If the stone penetrates deep enough, it can bruise and kill the growing point. When this happens, the plant is finished. A sharp knife (and the appropriate protective gear) can help determine the depth of penetration of a hail stone. The growing point should be near white while a damaged or dying growing point will turn brown.
As with most storm events, its too wet to do anything in the field afterwards so the best advice is to wait and assess plant recovery over a period of about a week. Give the plants time to recover! In the meantime, don’t hesitate to call your seed rep and agronomist and get their opinion. Here are some other resources for various crops: