Network aids seed testing

The U.S. Testing Network is a member-based organization that collaborates with breeders and independent seed companies to provide corn hybrids and locations for seed testing. Practical Farmers of Iowa co-founded USTN to provide a coordinated, rigorous testing service for conventional and organic corn, and to help rebuild the dwindling selection of non-GMO corn seed available in the marketplac

Network aids seed testing

The U.S. Testing Network is a member-based organization that collaborates with breeders and independent seed companies to provide corn hybrids and locations for seed testing. Practical Farmers of Iowa co-founded USTN to provide a coordinated, rigorous testing service for conventional and organic corn, and to help rebuild the dwindling selection of non-GMO corn seed available in the marketplace.

“The goal of the USTN is to improve the quality and quantity of non-GMO corn hybrids available to farmers,” says Chris Wilbeck, who manages USTN for Practical Farmers. “PFI coordinates the testing and data management, providing a one-stop shop for those who want to test in many different regions.”

Members find the data trustworthy and use it to supplement their own testing. USTN is one of the few places where farmers can rigorously test the viability of non-GMO and organic hybrids.

Network keeps growing

The network has grown each year since it was launched, and includes 28 members in 12 states. In 2014, nearly 250 hybrids were tested at 42 locations across the Midwest and eastern U.S., spanning several growing regions. USTN members pay to enroll a hybrid for testing, based on their regions of interest. The hybrid will then be automatically tested at all locations available for that region. As new members join the network, new testing locations are added.

“From the beginning, we have strongly supported the USTN,” says Mac Ehrhardt, president of Albert Lea Seed House, a USTN member. “There is a real need for independent testing that supports the breeding and development of non-GMO hybrid seed corn.”

Before the USTN, corn breeders, researchers and retailers interested in non-GMO and organic corn hybrids had to rely on small, disparate data sets and isolated testing programs. Unlike traited or GMO corn hybrids, which benefit from a well-established network of public university and private testing services that generate extensive data, non-GMO corn tests were geographically limited, a reality that made it hard to assess a hybrid’s performance across a range of environmental conditions. Companies also lacked an efficient means of sharing data with each other.

Sharing knowledge

“Companies were testing non-GMO corn on their own, but there wasn’t a good system for communicating data and they didn’t have the ability to network together,” says Sarah Carlson, research coordinator for Practical Farmers. “Now at least once a year, we see each other face to face to exchange ideas and data.”

Because the U.S. Testing Network is an independent, membership-based organization, members dictate the test locations and zones, and have the freedom to decide on process changes.

Another of USTN’s objectives is to make corn hybrid testing affordable for companies of any size.

John Hunt of Beck’s Hybrids says he appreciates that USTN “offers an unbiased testing program that reaches across a broad geography, which can be used by germplasm developers and retailers, regardless of their size and resources.”

Alix Paez, a corn breeder who develops non-GMO hybrids for his Iowa-based seed company Genetic Enterprises International, adds that since USTN’s launch, companies and breeders have access to more robust data that helps them decide whether to invest more time developing a corn hybrid for the marketplace.

“USTN provides access to coordinated, professionally organized, multi-location yield data within maturity regions across the Corn Belt,” says Paez. “This helps breeders advance hybrids and make commercial hybrid decisions at a reasonable cost.” 

For questions about USTN or to become a member, contact Chris Wilbeck at 515-229-6988 or [email protected], or Sarah Carlson at 515-232-5661 or [email protected].

Larsen is communications and policy associate with Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Why USTN matters to farmers

With corn and soybean prices sliding, farmers are looking for more ways to save on input costs. One popular area for reducing cost of production is through the use of cheaper seed. Untraited hybrids are cheaper because there are no technology fees to pay. 

Using untraited materials means controlling weeds and insect pressures through other methods. Farmers can use cultivation for weed control or extend the crop rotation by adding a third crop to improve insect control. Either way, controlling costs is top priority for farmers expecting lower commodity prices for the next couple years.

Where can you find non-GMO or organic corn hybrids? Members of the U.S. Testing Network offer a wide range of non-GMO hybrids produced under both conventional or organic management that have gone through their own rigorous testing programs supplemented with data generated from USTN’s service. This increased access to testing improves a company’s ability to provide farmers with solid evidence of a hybrid’s performance and avoid “one-hit-wonders.” Check out a list of companies and their websites to assess hybrid performance on Practical Farmers of Iowa’s website.

This article published in the January, 2015 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2015.

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