Growers in Illinois and Iowa now have access to independent, statewide corn hybrid trials - and they're scouring the results before buying seed. The service could soon be available in several other Midwestern states.

The trials are conducted on farms by crop consultants. Plots are planted by the consultants or by cooperating farmers under the consultants' supervision. The consultants also are there to help collect data at harvest.

The program is sponsored by F.I.R.S.T. (Farmers' Independent Research of Seed Technology) and participating seed companies.

"F.I.R.S.T. was organized by Kevin Coey in Illinois in 1997, and we began the service in Iowa in 1999," reports independent crop consultant Chris Clark, Ida Grove, IA. Clark, with Byron and Peggy Peters, heads Iowa F.I.R.S.T.

There are three testing regions in Illinois - northern, central and southern, and two in Iowa - northern and central. In 1999, both states had six test locations in each of its regions.

"We purposely limit the number of hybrids tested in each region," says Clark. "That encourages seed companies to enter only their best-performing hybrids.

"We issue a summary on the top-performing hybrids, rating them for yield at 15% moisture and for income per acre after drying costs," he adds. "We also evaluate each hybrid for such grain-quality traits as protein, oil, starch, density (kernel hardness) and test weight. The cooperating farmer gives each hybrid a standability score at harvest."

"I consider these to be the best independent yield checks that we have in Iowa," says producer Jim Meyer, Odebolt, IA. "The tests are replicated, and that increases their accuracy."

Meyer says he had his own test plots in the past but didn't have the needed replications.

"I studied the Iowa F.I.R.S.T. results very closely when picking my hybrids for this year," Meyer notes. "The ones I chose were in the top 10 on yield in all the test sites in Iowa. I have a high level of confidence in these selections."

Kevin Kimberley, Maxwell, IA, is an Iowa F.I.R.S.T. cooperating farmer. "I see first-hand how thorough, unbiased and accurate this program is," he says. Kimberley also used the results to choose the hybrids he'll plant this spring. "I selected them primarily on income per acre," he reports. "And I concentrated on those test locations that were nearest to me."

Kevin Coey, who started the F.I.R.S.T. program in '97, says he issued several hundred summaries in the start-up season. By 1999, demand had soared to over 6,000.

"The increase is due in part to the fact we are now partnering with the Illinois Corn Growers Association," he notes.

Coey says some farmers go slow in selecting hybrids based on F.I.R.S.T. testing until they see if the results match up with yields on their own ground. He understands that and, in fact, encourages farmers to look at other yield information.

"The real value of the F.I.R.S.T. program comes from looking at multiyear data and then picking out six to eight of the best hybrids for planting."

Is it possible that farmers, when selecting the top entrants from the F.I.R.S.T. program, might plant two or more hybrids with the same genetics?

"It's possible," says Coey. "Most seed companies have two or three popular hybrids that other seed companies also have. However, when you peel away those few, you will find great genetic diversity among the unique lines each seed company has developed on its own. And those numbers may be better than the hybrids nearly every company has in common."

What's more, says Coey, even when companies have the same hybrids there can be significant yield differences due to seed production practices and conditioning.

To help farmers determine whether hybrids in the trials are genetically different, the summaries include color pictures of the ear, shelled cob and kernels of each hybrid. Harvest moisture levels and test weights also are listed.

"Hybrids are likely to be different if cob and grain color are different, if adjusted test weights differ by 0.7 lb and if harvest moistures differ by 0.5 point," Coey explains. The test weight and moisture figures are based on 1999 Illinois data.

Coey plans to expand the program into Wisconsin for 2000 and perhaps into other states later.

For more information, call 712-364-4488 in Iowa and 217-356-3563 in Illinois. The annual summary, available from participating crop consultants, costs about $40 plus tax and shipping.