By Julienne Isaacs
David Morris is not only secretary to the Ontario Corn Committee (OCC), which conducts the province’s annual hybrid corn performance trials. He’s also the committee’s “corporate memory,” having been involved for about 40 years.
The former soil and crop specialist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) has been secretary of the OCC since 1997. He’s done a lot of research on the OCC and the hybrid performance trials’ beginnings. Formally established in 1941, the OCC’s responsibilities originally included co-ordination of breeding, recommending varieties for registration and production in Ontario, and zoning the province with regard to corn maturity.
In the early ‘90s, the seed industry successfully lobbied the government to do away with the variety registration requirement, so the OCC now exclusively collects hybrid performance data.
Some aspects of the trials have remained the same since 1941. For example, the OCC has always collected data on yield, lodging and moisture content – but a few things have changed, notably overall variety performance.
Fifty years ago, for example, average hybrid corn yield in the Chatham-Kent region was about 115 bushels per acre, versus today’s average yields of 235 or 240 bushels per acre even in relatively dry years, like 2016.
“We’ve had trials other years that have averaged in the 250 bushel range, and the odd year one or two hybrids have gone above 300 bushels per acre,” Morris says. “If you’d asked me when I started whether we’d ever have a trial average over 250, I wouldn’t have thought it would happen in my lifetime!”
This year, Morris says varieties performed well overall, considering the hot, dry weather conditions.
“We’ve seen this before, but it was really dramatic this year  how much corn can yield with no rain,” he says. “We went through June to August in some areas with almost no rain, but we had much better than average yields on some farms, particularly those that got planted in a timely fashion.”
The strong performances demonstrate major improvements in corn stress tolerance, Morris says. The quality of hybrid corn varieties’ basic genetics has climbed since the trials began, as plant breeders have continued to put together better combinations for stress tolerance, disease resistance and agronomic performance.
Over the years, Morris has counted 80 different brand names with submissions; that number is down to 11 or 12 now, reflecting consolidation and the resources required to develop advanced hybrids.
Reading the data
The hybrid corn performance trials offer producers an important piece of the puzzle when making seed purchasing decisions in the winter: side-by-side comparisons of variety performance from all seed companies arranged by growing region.
According to Ben Rosser, OMAFRA’s corn specialist, trials are held across the main corn growing regions of Ontario, from low heat unit areas like Dundalk to higher heat unit areas like Ridgetown. Data is arranged in five tables based on maturity.
Over the last two years, trials have been run in 16 locations across the province.
As for which hybrids are grown in the trials, it’s up to seed companies to submit hybrids. Each hybrid may only be submitted for a couple of years, and Rosser says turnover is regular as newer, higher yielding hybrids are released.
All trials are over-seeded before being thinned back by research crews to ensure each trial has the same population. Each trial is inspected before harvest to ensure all hybrids get a fair test. “Toward harvest the teams go in and do lodging ratings,” Rosser says. “After that it’s combining. The combine has a continuous batch weigh system – as you harvest, it weighs each plot and records moisture.”
Rosser says yields weren’t as high in 2016 as they were in 2015, which saw record yields. However, provincial yields are estimated to be close to longer-term averages, despite the dry weather.
According to Morris, 2016 marked the second year of a trial project nested within the variety trials called the Intensive Management Trials. In this project, a smaller group of varieties (15 to 20 per group) is planted in eight locations and intensively managed to analyze which hybrids respond better to higher input levels.
Shawn Winter, product development manager for Maizex Seeds and current chair of the OCC, says Maizex has been involved in the hybrid performance trials for over 30 years.
“We had 32 hybrids in the 2016 OCC performance trials and eight hybrids in the intensive management trials,” Winter says. “The value of the OCC trials results from providing producers [with] independent, third-party data to support their purchasing decision. The appropriate selection of hybrids can influence the profitability of producers more than any other crop input.”
Morris echoes the value of the trials for producers.
“The advantage is that it gives producers information about a wide range of varieties from a range of companies,” he says. “There are lots of on-farm trials out there, and farmers rely on their own experience and trials close to their region, but the OCC trials give them a chance to see how varieties perform compared to others.”