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Evaluating yields: Crop performance testing provides important, unbiased results

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This article was first published in the SDSU Extension 2013 Annual Report within the Spring 2014 edition of South Dakota Growing magazine; a publication of SDSU college of agriculture and biological sciences.

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Which seed variety will perform best and is suited to specific environments? That's a question farmers ponder each year as they make their seed selection decisions. The SDSU crop performance testing program is in place to help provide yield and performance data for farmers to base their decisions on.

Providing farmers with local and unbiased yield results on seed varieties sold in South Dakota is the focus of the program, explains Nathan Mueller, SDSU Extension agronomist. It's a cooperative effort between SDSU Extension and the SDSU Agricultural Experiment Station, and in 2013, 652 varieties or hybrids from nine different crops and 63 public or private entities were tested in field trials throughout South Dakota.

Mueller further explains, "Although seed companies run their own seed trials throughout the state, this program acts as an unbiased third-party to provide additional information to South Dakota farmers."

The nine crops tested in the SDSU crop performance program are corn, soybeans, spring wheat, winter wheat, oats, field peas, sorghum, sunflower and flax. Trials are set up in fields across the state to test seed performance locally so farmers can get a clear picture of how varieties perform in their soil type and growing conditions.

The environment into which a seed is planted has as much to do with production as anything," notes Randy Englund, executive director of the South Dakota Wheat Commission. "Our growers need to see how a seed will perform locally and base their purchasing decisions on that -- not how it performed in Kansas."

This year, the Wheat Commission used Checkoff dollars and helped fund a portion of the Crop Performance Trial, which focused on wheat varieties. The United Sorghum Checkoff and the S.D. Pulse Council help fund sorghum and field pea trials.

When setting up trials in farmers' fields, Mueller and his team ensure that all varieties are treated the same. The test plot is away from the edge of the field, and SDSU crop performance testing staff plant all the plots using the same equipment. Because the plots are within the cooperator farmer's fields, they receive the same fertility plan, herbicides and pesticides as the rest of the farmer's crop. Cooperator farmers keep record of their management practices and share these with Mueller.

Trials are also conducted on three SDSU agricultural experiment station research stations in eastern South Dakota.

Seed varieties or hybrids tested in the trial are sent in by private as well as public seed providers. In 2013 more than 63 private seed brands, distributors, and land grant institutions enrolled their seed in the trial. Each corn, soybean, sunflower, wheat and winter wheat variety entered in the trial has an entrance fee paid by the participating companies to help cover costs of the program.

"This gives farmers a chance to look at private seed company wheat varieties along with those developed at our land grant university," Englund notes.

As harvest results come in each fall, yield results from each variety and test plot are posted on iGrow.org for the public to view. Mueller encourages growers to monitor this information as it is posted each fall and to compare yield results as they prepare to make seed choices for the following year.

"Margins on the farm are tight. If a farmer can improve yields by even several bushels an acre by planting a variety that performs better in their growing conditions, that can have a significant impact on their bottom line," Mueller points out.

Bancroft farmer Steve Weerts is one of several farmers who volunteer to host performance trials in his fields each growing season.

"I enjoy seeing results from what I do each day. Harvest is a time when you can see how the decisions you made at the beginning of the year work out. Of course, Mother Nature plays a role in that too," says the fifth-generation producer, who farms with his dad, Eugene, and uncle, Erland.

Once his yield results are in, Weerts cross checks how the seed variety from his fields faired against seed variety results from SDSU's crop performance testing program. Based on what he discovers, Weerts modifies future seed purchasing decisions.

"We think there is a lot of value in seeing how different varieties perform in our area," Weerts says. In addition to Mueller, the SDSU Crop Performance Testing team includes Kevin Kirby, Shawn Hawks, Bruce Swan, Chris Graham, Kathy Grady and Lee Gilbertson.

To view results from the 2013 crop performance testing program visit iGrow.org, click on the "Agronomy" tab and look in the "Resource Library," or view the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SDSUExtCropTesting.

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