If you are committed to a long-time trusted agronomic adviser and seed salesman, you need only decide among the hybrids he or she is trying to sell you for your soil type each year. But between companies, beware. What appears to be standardized is not at all.

Last fall I spent my first time ever seriously debating seed buying decisions. For most of you, this is old hat. But from what I knew in a past life interning for a seed company, I thought I might have a small amount of useful knowledge. Growing up, I think I “helped” my dad when I was much younger, but most likely I was trying to avoid running the vacuum cleaner or doing the dishes.

What do the numbers mean?

Ready to use my bits of school-acquired knowledge – compared to the real-life experience of my father-in-law and local seed salesmen – I hoped to see apples-to-apples numbers and make a selection based on days to maturity, milk yield and price.

However, we do not have apples-to-apples numbers, especially in the brown mid-rib (BMR) category. Different seed companies evaluate genetics in different ways. Starting with designation of days to maturity, continuing with the procedure in sample collection, and especially in lab analysis, every company is different.

Since that experience, I spoke to two major seed companies and a handful of laboratories, looking for some symmetry on ways to find the genetic potential of any particular corn silage hybrid. I found little shared agreement.

In other words, you can equally compare corn silage hybrids within companies’ information, but you are comparing apples to sliced apples when looking at competing companies’ information. And, when it comes to BMR hybrids between companies, it is more like comparing apples to aged Cheddar.

Several land grant universities still have corn silage comparisons done on a variety of geographies and soil types. However, even university laboratories have different ways in analyzing data, both in collection and analysis procedures.

Speed and accuracy debated

The disagreement comes down to the science of determining a corn silage’s value: wet chemistry versus NIR (near infrared) spectroscopy. The two technologies appear to find the same numbers, but companies disagree which method is more accurate.

Wet chemistry is the time-honored tradition, and done perfectly it is likely the most accurate. But since perfect is impossible, some companies and labs do in-house NIR spectroscopy. This is a much less expensive and faster process, with more data points and less opportunity for human error if the system has been set up correctly – based on the values derived from wet chemistry. The debate appears to have no resolution in sight.

Further, the perfect length of digestibility is a debate, so watch whether the milk-per-ton values are at 24 hours versus 48 hours – higher-production cows will digest feed much faster. 

We need consistent testing when it comes to genetics. But, since it does not exist, ask these five questions when discussing seed options this fall:
  1. Which lab analyzed your corn silage for these numbers, and what kind of analysis did they use?
  2. Which length of digestibility testing would fit best with my herd’s feeding groups?
  3. How have these hybrids fared in local test plots or those with my soil type?
  4. Could we run some in-field plots against the competitor?
  5. How do results change in a dry or wet year?
Whether you choose BMR or conventional, testing for corn silage genetic information is still not standardized. Rely on local experts versus what is on paper. Consider running in-field plots of your own, and figure out which test is best for your cows, with help from your agronomist and nutritionist.