This planter switches hybrids on the go Dennis Lindsay felt both satisfaction and sadness as he finished planting last year. His hard work and investment in a prototype planter proved successful in the field. But he thinks the technology is years away from common usage.

The Masonville, IA, farmer modified a Case IH Cyclo 900 planter so it could alternate between two hybrids, based on a GPS prescription, as he crossed the field. "We've written a lot of prescriptions for herbicides and fertilizer," Lindsay says. "I wanted to test if we could change hybrids on the go and make money.

"It was more difficult to modify the planter than it looks," he says. "We spent $10,000 and a lot of hours to make it work. I couldn't have done it without my sons Brian and Jeff, who did a lot of the work."

When Lindsay began the project, he assumed he'd find hardware and software that were compatible. He needed to create a computerized field map with a prescription that would control which hybrid dropped at any particular point in the field.

Instead, he found that he was taking on a project that the precision ag industry wasn't ready to address. As a result, he figured many of the logistics out himself - with the help of Delta Data GIS software.

As the first corn seedlings pushed through the soil, Lindsay could see that his planter had performed with near perfection. "We didn't have any skips or doubles where it switched from one hybrid to the other," he says. "We planted one field of soybeans where one variety was darker than the other. You could see the technology worked by the color differences across the field."

Lindsay tested the planter in three cornfields in 50-, 70- and 90-acre plots. In separate passes he planted all Hybrid A, followed by a pass of all Hybrid B and then a prescription pass driven by the computerized field map.

While the technology works, Lindsay isn't sure about the economics of the system. "We saw yield differences, sometimes as much as 10-15 bu/acre," he says. "But I don't know if it was the hybrid or location in the field. It didn't stay consistent."

Lindsay has been working with a seed company to write the seed prescriptions and help develop the technology. But that support is gone now, and he's still looking for someone who can help him analyze the field data.

That's where the frustration gets intense for Lindsay. "The industry doesn't take this technology seriously. These companies just aren't interested in the potential and it's sad.

"We just don't have a big enough database of information about these hybrids," he says. "We'll have to have help from the companies to collect the data to make it work."

At Iowa State University (ISU), extension agronomist Dale Farnham sensed that same reluctance from seed companies when he started to work with an experimental planter that can switch between two hybrids based on computerized field maps.

"There were rumblings from the seed industry that farmers would want to know what hybrids to plant where, and the seed companies don't really know that," says Farnham.

Two years of data have proved inconclusive for Farnham. "We chose to work with iron chlorosis problems because there's a close relationship between it and pH. We wanted to see if we could compensate for the yield penalty based on soil type and geography," he says. "We planted strips of all tolerant, all susceptible and a computerized formula of both at Ames in 1999 and at another location in 2000. We GPS-located the strips to try to site-specifically place the varieties.

"Basically, we've seen what we already know. One variety will have a 7- to 15-bu advantage over the other. But we always get that knowledge after the fact, at harvest. And the result isn't as predictable as we'd like to think it is."

It's difficult to get the same results in different years, says Farnham. "Even with chlorosis, moisture plays a big role. It was wet in 1999 and we didn't have any visible symptoms. It was easy to identify chlorosis in 2000 when it was dry."

Like Lindsay, Farnham wishes there was a better database of information to draw from. "The short life of hybrids is working against us," he says. "By the time we know what we're dealing with, they're gone."

Farnham believes the system has potential. "I think there's merit," he says. "The issue is how to identify the characteristics that are going to give you benefits. We have pathologists at ISU who are studying the potential of site-specifically planting different varieties in SCN-(soybean cyst nematode) infected fields, and the potential for planting both treated and untreated seed depending on environmental conditions."

In 2001, Lindsay is without a company database to base the prescription on, and Farnham no longer has the planter. But both will continue their quests.

"I won't have any source for information to make the prescriptions," says Lindsay. "But I'll still try it again in a couple of fields. I'm not claiming it to be anything great, but I think we'll be seeing more of it in the future."

Farnham will continue his research, planting alternating strips of different varieties and comparing yields. "We'll continue to see if we can find an economic benefit," he says.