Fields across the Midwest will begin sporting a new look in 2015 as farmers begin using variable-rate, multi-cultivar planters, which are available commercially for the first time after being field tested in 2014 by Kinze Manufacturing and Precision Planting, in conjunction with four seed companies.
On the ground, the new look will be subtle. But from the air, differences in plant coloration, form and structure between corn hybrids will create dramatic curves across the field’s landscape as it switches from one hybrid to another. The same goes for dual-variety soybean fields.
But will the new look be more profitable?
Six 16-row multi-hybrid planters were tested across several Midwest states. “The planter performed exceptionally well,” says Phil Jennings, Kinze Manufacturing service manager.
“Our customers were impressed with the two-meter system and how accurately it could make the switch from one hybrid to another. It’s a one- or two-seed overlap,” adds Dale Koch, Precision Planting multi-hybrid product manager. The company tested several John Deere Central Commodity System planters running the company’s dual-meter retrofit system on thousands of acres across seven states in 2014.
Corn yield results
Field trials were conducted primarily on corn, with a smattering of soybean trials. The trials were designed to test the concept that planting offensive hybrids on more productive soils, and defensive hybrids on soils where racehorse hybrids falter, can increase overall yields. To compare performance, strips of offensive and defensive hybrids were planted in both high- and low-productivity zones.
Results available in early 2015 showed a mixed bag for yield performance with 2014’s unusually high rainfall.
“The exceptional growing season pretty much masked the extent of the multi-hybrid effect,” says Tom Burrus, Burrus Hybrids president. The company tested a 16-row Kinze multi-hybrid planter on 1,400 acres among 22 farms in Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri in 2014.
“In most cases, there was no moisture stress on light soils,” he says. “Yields from offensive hybrids on the better soils were good, but they didn’t have the 50% yield increase we saw with defensive hybrids on many poorer soils.”
For Beck’s Hybrids, which conducted trials with both Kinze and Precision Planting, yields from about 40 multi-hybrid field trials in Illinois and Indiana showed an average advantage of 4.8 bushels per acre.
This was still substantially lower than the 9.5-bushel-per-acre average yield advantage for 2012–13 field trials, says Jason Webster, Beck’s research agronomist. After three years of trials, its average yield advantage for multi-hybrid corn stands at 7.9 bushels per acre.
The company jump-started its multi-hybrid planting research with a modified twin-toolbar planter beginning in 2012, giving it the most experience with commercial-sized, multi-hybrid U.S. field trials.
“2014 was a wonderful growing season,” says Webster. “Some of the highest yields ever came off of these farms. Even though this reduced the multi-hybrid yield advantage, it taught us even more about how to choose the best hybrids for different locations.”
Cory Muhlbauer, Precision Planting agronomist, says the case for multi-hybrid systems isn’t as strong during above-average rainfall. “In a normal year, we expect the yield difference to be greater, and even better in a dry year.”
Winning corn percentages
Despite the unusual growing season, Webster notes that offensive hybrids out-yielded defensive hybrids in “offensive” management zones 71% of the time. Meanwhile, in “defensive” zones, defensive hybrids out-yeilded offensive hybrids 86% of the time.
“Our accuracy in placing hybrids was down somewhat from 2012 and 2013, but we still had far more winners than losers,” he says.
In a couple of instances, offensive hybrids yielded about 20 bushels per acre less than defensive hybrids planted in the offensive management zone, Webster notes.
“In a year when you have lots of rain, the tops of the hills and the hillsides grow excellent grain,” he says. “Water rolls into the low ground, which caused some of the offensive soils to become defensive.”
Multi-variety soybean potential
Of the few multi-variety soybean trials conducted in 2014, there were no results available early in 2015. In 2012 and 2013, on average, alternating between offensive and defensive varieties increased yields 3.2 bushels per acre in Beck’s trials.
As with corn, there’s plenty of potential for improving overall yields and reducing costs by limiting seed coatings to areas that need it most, Muhlbauer says.
“You might plant an upright variety at a lower population for heavy ground to reduce disease risk, with a bushier bean at higher populations for lighter soils,” he says. “When you get into specific-use cases such as iron deficiency chlorosis and soybean cyst nematodes, it is easy to understand the opportunity.”
Switching soybean cultivars to match field and pest conditions could improve overall yields if it’s done right, says Daren Mueller, Iowa State University plant pathologist. “I see lots of opportunity,” he says. “The challenge will be to know where to switch varieties. It would open up lifetimes of research to learn how to do it well.”
Webster says that calculating a return on investment from multi-cultivar planters has previously been impossible, given the limited and expensive commercial planter options.
Now, with two planter options priced at roughly $2,000 per row, he calculates that adding a multi-cultivar planting option to a new or existing planter could deliver an average corn yield increase of 7.9 bushels per acre.
“With this kind of ROI, it’s not a question of whether farmers with variable soils will buy them, it’s a question of how fast,” Webster predicts. “With low commodity prices, the biggest thing we can do is harvest more bushels, especially since you can do it without increasing seed and other variable costs.”
Farms with the greatest soil variability will benefit the most. “Farms with 60% to 70% variable soils are excellent candidates for multi-hybrid planting,” he says. “Guys who are farming mostly flat, black and beautiful probably don’t need it.”
Two new multi-hybrid planting options
Row crop farmers will have two multi-cultivar planting system options available for 2015, including a full planter from Kinze Manufacturing and a retrofit option from Precision Planting.
Kinze 16-row planter
The Kinze 16-row, multi-hybrid planter available for 2015 is based on the 4900 Series planter introduced for 2014. Dual electric drives for each row power the twin 4000-Series vacuum seed meters placed side by side atop each row unit and also enable variable-rate planting. Seed is delivered from each meter through a Y-transition to a single seed tube. The planter is plumbed to deliver separate hybrids from its standard two bulk seed tanks.
The planter’s electronics were developed by Raven Industries, using the Envizio Pro XL platform.
The multi-hybrid version of the 16-row 4900 Series planter lists at $203,461, about 15% more than a standard 4900 planter.
Precision Planting retrofit
The Precision Planting multi-hybrid system, which includes a pair of V-Set meters in a unified housing for each row, will be available for retrofitting to John Deere 1770 bulk fill and Kinze 3600 and 3660 bulk fill planters in 2015.
The company’s dual V-Set metering system was designed to drop seed into the seed tube without intermediary plumbing. Meters face each other with seed plates revolving in opposite directions. Seeds drop from the meters in the same fore-aft position, with a seed trajectory that meets in the middle of the seed tube.
Other key components of the system include two variable-rate electric drives for each row, hoses to plumb bulk seed tanks to route seed to respective seed meters and a SeedSense monitoring system.
The list price of a full retrofit system is $2,100 per row. For retrofit-ready planters already using Precision Planting V-Set/V-Drive systems, the list price for a multi-hybrid upgrade is $1,250/row.