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Hot hybrid

Agronomists tell us not to rely too much on one or two favorite corn hybrids. The standard advice to farmers is to spread the risk by planting a mix of hybrids with diverse characteristics and maturities. Nevertheless, when farmers find a hybrid that yields exceptionally well for them, they tend to plant much more of it for years to come. Their philosophy — limit your risk too much and you also limit your potential gain.

When demand for one successful hybrid increases, the seed company that sells it is often obliged to produce more of that hybrid's seed and market it even more aggressively by trumpeting its often-superior yield contest results. Such is the case with AgriGold A6395, dubbed “The Sheriff” by clever AgriGold marketers.

At field days, farmers have been most impressed with A6395’s girthy ears. But The Sheriff's biggest boost came in 2003, when it dominated the Farmers Independent Research of Seed Technologies (FIRST) trials, showing a 9.6-bu./acre advantage in more than 2,000 trials. For some corn breeders, beating or "shooting" The Sheriff has become a new standard for hybrid performance.

In the past four growing seasons, A6395 has rapidly gained market share against its competitors. The hybrid is sold in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Tennessee. In these regions, the hybrid has advanced from having just .025% of the market to more than 1.7% market share. That's a lot for just one hybrid, especially considering AgriGold's 4% regional market share among companies that have hundreds of hybrids and superior marketing budgets.

Looked at nationally, AgriGold holds about 1.9% of the seed corn market, with A6395 accounting for .45% of that national market share. The numbers would suggest that AgriGold is highly leveraged on the success of one hybrid. Aware of this, the company’s breeders are hard at work trying to produce new, even better hybrids. But corn breeding is a time-intensive task measured in years, and beating The Sheriff has not been easy.

Agronomists would point out that leverage works both ways. Over-commit to one hybrid and perhaps capture a big gain, or hit a bad year and get a bigger downside. Even among seed giants that should have known better, there is a long history of hot rod hybrids that gained huge market share, but eventually broke down when something in their high-yielding genetics showed vulnerability in an unusually stressful year. Such bad news spreads like a grass fire across the prairie.

For some hybrids, the Achilles heel was root weakness that led to widespread lodging. For others, it was susceptibility to diseases such as gray leaf spot and stalk rot. One thing is sure — when a lot of farmers plant the same hybrid expecting big results, but instead end up with a lot of down corn, it can become a disaster for the seed company.

Will the same fate befall The Sheriff? No one can say, but A6395 has proven strong so far. AgriGold breeders attribute the hybrid's success to an overall agronomic package that includes strong stalks, roots and overall plant health. Also in the hybrid's favor is A6395's unique base genetics, which come from AgriGold's parent company AgReliant Genetics. In a market where many hybrids from different companies often share the same germplasm, A6395 is genetically unique and seems to be as close to a total package as any one hybrid can be.

At any rate, the continued success, or ultimate fall, of The Sheriff bears watching. In the meantime, AgriGold is continuing to enhance the hybrid's marketability by adding a wide assortment of herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant traits. In the near term, that can only mean more acres for this hot hybrid.

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