Pick your variety like a spouse

By Mike Rankin

It’s here. No, I’m not talking about the traditional holiday season. Rather, I’m referring to the epicenter of the seed-buying season. Let’s face it, late-year seed purchases help ensure that the good stuff won’t be gone, and there are sometimes also beneficial tax implications. Often, there are also pricing discounts.

Unlike corn and soybeans, there is relatively little performance information to guide forage-buying decisions. I can count on one hand the number of farm-seeded forage variety strip trials I’ve driven by over the years. Conversely, similar corn and soybean initiatives are as common as red barns.

Very few state universities test grass varieties and perhaps even fewer have extensive alfalfa variety trials. In my opinion, it’s one of the travesties of our industry, but that’s a topic for another day. If you live in a state where testing is done, consider yourself lucky.

Where forage varieties are tested, we know that the yield range between the top and bottom varieties is huge; it often can be measured in tons per acre. This speaks to the economic consequences from selecting one of the bottom dwellers.

Though technology may change things in the coming years, forage variety performance is not easy to document with on-farm testing.

Yield is hard to see

In addition to the relative lack of public-generated performance data, forage yield differences are difficult to see in the field. A one-half ton (dry matter) yield advantage is hard to notice or measure in a single year because it’s spread over multiple cuttings. Yet the value of a half-ton of forage is similar to 20 bushels or more of corn.

Forage variety selection is important, and it’s a management area where many producers can quickly improve whole farm production with a small investment in time.

One date won’t get it done

I’ve often likened forage variety selection with finding the right spouse.

Most people would agree that picking your spouse after only one date is a high-risk approach. The same is true when selecting forage varieties. Single-location, single-year data is not enough information to confidently pick a “winner.” Performance changes with environment.

Seeking out those varieties that perform in the top 25 percent of tested varieties in public and private trials at multiple locations are the best indicator of year-after-year performance. The need for feed remains consistent on most farms. Consequently, there is a need for consistent and persistent performance from the forage varieties you plant.

Blondes are not always more fun

You probably also wouldn’t pick your spouse ONLY because of their hair color. There may be other traits they have that are not so desirable or compatible for long-term wedded bliss. The same is also good advice when selecting forage varieties, especially as more unique traits such as glyphosate resistance, lodging resistance, and reduced lignin become available.

There are many varieties in the bottom half of performance trials that have very admirable single-trait qualities. Selecting a variety based solely on a single trait is always dangerous. This holds true for any trait. It’s important to look at the entire package and at core agronomic performance in the field over several years when the data is available.

Look beyond cost

The cost of the wedding ring is not highly correlated to a long-lasting marriage. The same can be said for the cost of forage seed. There's a wide variation in the cost of forage seed among varieties . . . and it’s getting wider. Seed price is generally the last selection variable that should be considered and only after a “short list” of high, consistent performers is developed.

The real “cost” of seed is not reflected in the purchase price alone. Seeding an inferior-yielding variety, regardless of price, means that long-term costs of production are higher per ton of forage produced. Relatively large differences in initial seed price are quickly made up with small advantages in yield, quality, and persistence.

While we will likely not see the same sustained yield improvement for perennial forage crops that has been accomplished in annual crops like corn, there is no question that recently developed varieties are far superior to what was on the market 20 years ago.

Some new varieties exhibit the entire package of high disease resistance, fast regrowth, strong persistence, high quality, and exceptional yield. However, like picking your spouse, identifying these top performers takes a focused investment in time and resources.