Should I Produce My Own Seed?

by Chuck Francis and Roger Hammons, University of Nebraska - Lincoln

Current concerns about new crop hybrids and varieties produced by transgenic methods (often called GMOs), and accelerating seed costs due to new technology charges, have farmers asking about how to produce their own seed. Recent purchases of most major seed companies by multinational chemical corporations add to our concerns about consolidation in the industry and possible future lack of choice for farmers.

Can an individual produce and plant home-grown seed, avoid going back to the dealer each year, and expect to reach satisfactory yield levels?

The answer is Yes! But we have to know how to produce, condition, store, test, and use this seed right.

The first step is to choose the varieties or hybrids to be produced. Few farmers would accept the risk of planting all acres of each crop to a single number, thus we use past experience and yields to decide which ones to produce. These must be public access varieties, with no prior signed agreement with a company to not save seed.

The decision on which varieties to produce locks us into that genetic material for the next year when the seed will be used. To change that decision after spending the time and money to produce seed, and decide later to purchase a new variety, would be an expensive change.

The next steps depend on the crop. With self-pollinated crops such as soybeans, wheat, or barley we can choose a good part of the production field this year and take special care to keep weeds well managed and growing conditions favorable to produce high-quality seed. The seed field does not have to be isolated from other varieties of the same crop, but it should be well-marked to be sure that we harvest only the desired variety.

The crop should be harvested when mature, and optimum storage moisture is 11-12%. If there is need to dry the seed, this should be with unheated air and enough air flow to assure uniform moisture throughout the batch. The combine and bins should be cleaned well to protect against mixtures and weed seed.

‘Conditioning’ seed means careful cleaning and sometimes screening and separation into different sizes to fit the planter unit that will be used the next year. Seed is often bagged to help in storage and handling, and to prevent rodent and insect damage. A clean, dry storage area free from pests is essential.

Before planting, the seed should be tested for germination to be sure of the quality before it goes into the ground. The process is the same for wheat, which rarely needs additional drying, and it should be stored with 10-11% moisture for best results. Seed should be tested for germination before planting.

To produce hybrids of a cross-pollinated crop such as corn, it is necessary to obtain the two parent lines. Again, decide which hybrids will be needed in production two years from now and buy the parents from a university.

In the first year, you will often increase the seed of these lines, and each must be planted in a small field at least 300-400 feet from other corn. This avoids contamination of the lines from other corn pollen. An alternative is to control pollination by bags on the ears and tassels, and using a mixture of pollen from many plants to pollinate silks by hand. This is too big a job for seed production on the field scale.

Seed of each line is carefully harvested, conditioned, and stored at an optimum moisture of 12-13%. Since seed corn is often harvested at high moisture to assure a quality product, this should be dried slowly with natural air or with added heat no higher than 100 degrees F.

The next year an isolated field is needed to plant male and female rows (often MFFFFM in a 6-row planter) with a resulting field of 2 male rows to 4 female rows; a 2:6 combination is also possible with an 8-row planter. If the female parent has genetic sterility, there is no need to detassle. If not, the female rows must have the tassels removed each day before they shed any pollen.

At harvest, the female rows are harvested for seed and the conditioning and storing is done as described above. Male rows are harvested for feed grain or silage. Again, seed should be tested for germination before planting in the spring. A major limitation today is finding inbred lines that are available in the public domain.

Another option for corn is the open pollinated variety or synthetic variety. This is generally a mixture of high-yielding parent materials that have been cross pollinated and selected for several generations to reach a degree of uniformity. Since the resulting variety is a mixture of many related hybrids, it will not be as uniform in height or maturity as a single cross hybrid.

To prevent mixtures with pollen from other fields, the corn for seed should be grown at least 300 ft. from other corn fields, and it is often recommended to not harvest new seed from the first 10 rows on the south and west sides of the field to provide additional buffering from other corn.

If the right synthetic is chosen, it should be possible to further select for more specific adaptation to each farm. This selection should be done in the field before harvest by marking desirable plants — selecting the largest ears in the bin later often causes the choice of taller and later plants, pushing the variety in undesirable directions.

There is a resurgence of interest in farmer-produced seed of synthetics, and Iowa State University and Michael Fields Institute in Wisconsin have active programs to develop better synthetics. To assure quality of seed and good germination the next spring, the above steps should be taken for harvest, cleaning, and storage. A germination test is a must before planting.

According to a farmer planter-box study by UNL in the early 1990s, the three most important seed-related factors in crop success were purity of the variety or hybrid (freedom from weed seeds and undesirable types), uniformity of moisture percent and seed quality, and germination. If we can assure these three factors, there is no reason why a careful farmer cannot produce quality seed and have good yield results the next year.

With some experience and success with seed production, a farmer could make this a part of the business — growing and selling seed to add value to land, time, and other resources. Because the seed choice and the quality of the planting material are so important to success of a crop, it is easy to see why most farmers decide to purchase seed from companies that are specialized in doing all these steps and selling a guaranteed product.

Additional information is available from the Foundation Seed Division or from the Department of Agronomy, University of Nebraska — Lincoln.

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