Silage Blends: a Good Buy or a Bad Idea?
By Bill Mahanna and Ev Thomas
With the continued cost-price squeeze in dairy farming, it’s not surprising that many producers are trying to trim costs wherever possible. Seed corn costs have grown considerably in the past few years, mostly due to insect and herbicide resistance traits, but also because of what have become the standard seed pretreatments of Poncho and Cruiser Extreme. Given this situation, a number of companies are offering “silage blends” (including at least two BMR/ non-BMR blends for 2011), almost always at steep discounts to the prices of named hybrids.
Should You Buy a Blend?
The main reason farmers buy silage blends is price which is considerably lower than that of most individual hybrids. But even so, we think that you shouldn’t purchase a blend for several reasons:
First and foremost, in a silage blend you simply don’t know what you’re getting. The hybrids included in a silage blend could be fairly decent ones that the seed company had in surplus, but they could also include older hybrids that are on their way out. Silage blends are often sold not with a single relative maturity but within a range; for instance, “100-105 RM.” That’s because silage blends contain two or more hybrids, not all of which necessarily have the same relative maturity rating.
If you planted a silage blend last year and were pleased with the results, that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be pleased this year, even if you buy it from the same seed company and in the same maturity range. That’s because the hybrids making up the blend usually change from year to year, primarily depending on what hybrids the seed company has in surplus. At least one of the hybrids making up a silage blend may include leftover seed from the previous year that’s been retested for germination. Almost never is it a hybrid that the seed company is marketing as one of its “elite” corn hybrids.
Data on the yield or quality of silage blends isn’t available from unbiased sources such as university hybrid trials; in all the years we’ve been reviewing the results of these trials — in Ev’s case dating back to the mid-1960s — we’ve never seen a silage blend entered in any hybrid testing program.
Traits? Yield data from the seed company? Lots of luck there; silage blends may be on the seed company’s price list but seldom are they listed in its seed catalog. We reviewed a number of seed catalogs and didn’t find a single silage blend — but they're certainly available.
Anyone who’s grown corn for a number of years realizes that weather conditions affect some hybrids much differently than others. For instance, some hybrids have excellent early season vigor, while others are just so-so in this characteristic. And while some hybrids have the ability to perform well under moderately dry conditions, others have relatively poor drought tolerance.
There are also considerable hybrid differences in disease resistance, particularly to foliar diseases such as Northern corn leaf blight or eyespot disease. If you plant a field to a single hybrid, you may have the ability to manage problems that can affect the hybrid. But with a silage blend, during a cold spring, one hybrid that has excellent early vigor may wind up maturing a week earlier than its “bag mate” that does not.
Refuge Not the Same
Note that this doesn’t apply to the “refuge-in-a-bag” technology for Bt corn such as “AcreMax” and “Smartstax” that’s just now entering the marketplace. In the first place, there are only two corn hybrids involved in refuge in a bag, typically 90 to 95 percent of the first hybrid and 5 to 10 percent of the second. And the two hybrids have the same base genetics; the difference is the corn rootworm resistance trait present in the hybrid representing 90 to 95 percent of the seed. Some people refer to these as “blends” but they’re completely different. And refuge in a bag is certainly not bargain-basement priced as are silage blends!
As noted, the one advantage silage blends have is price: They’re priced to sell, sometimes at no more than half the price of the seed company’s toprated corn hybrids. This is certainly tempting, especially with the current dairy cost-price squeeze. However, not knowing what you’re buying, plus the inconsistent performance of silage blends because of their ever-changing makeup, suggest that they’re a poor investment for most farmers.
Originally published in the Febrary 2011 Field to Feedbunk issue. Reproduced with permission.