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Should you try a different farming style?

Many of you know that I’m a corn breeder and an agronomist by training. I was born in India and spent my professional life trying to develop better corn hybrids and agronomic techniques to improve yield levels in the U.S., plus train other corn breeders and help farmers. I believe the most productive farmers in the world are right here. However, all fingers on a hand aren’t alike. It’s the same with farmers.

I’ve come across four types of farmers: followers, leaders, innovators and bleeders. Followers generally follow the leaders in the surrounding areas. They watch what others do, the type of equipment they use and the seeds they plant, the planting dates they select, and the populations and traits they adopt.

After two to three years, followers adopt these ideas and varieties. Twenty years ago a new corn hybrid could last six to eight years before it was replaced. But now hybrid genetics and traits change almost every year. So followers can’t afford to wait and watch leaders in their community.

Key Points

• Farmers fall into four categories: followers, leaders, innovators, bleeders.

• Each would pick hybrids and varieties differently.

• Know which term describes you so you can stay sharp, yet off the bleeding edge.

Leaders vs. innovators

Leaders put these products in their own tests. Then they study their own data along with other data from universities and companies. They plant about 25% to 30% of their farm with newer products. This way they can gradually replace older, lower-yielding hybrids with newer, better products.

Innovators, like leaders, also study data. They grow corn and soybeans in their own tests, too. But they quickly replace most of their acres with newer hybrids without a lot of data. That can be quite risky. Yes, sometimes they hit it right and reap rich rewards. But sometimes they’re tempted to risk too much.

Bleeding edge

The bleeders are the very first to try new hybrids and technologies. They’re the gamblers. They want to be at the cutting-edge of technology.

If a hybrid or variety with a new trait added, for example, gets released before enough backcrosses to make sure it still possesses sound qualities and adequate protection against diseases, the hybrid or variety with the super-trait might wind up yielding less than the product that it replaced.

Many times farmers who take this much risk end up “bleeding” because they are the guinea pigs for new technologies. It’s hard to understand why someone would risk hundreds of acres on products when they’ve never seen them grown, or never seen data that show how they perform. Even if the seed was free, that’s a big risk to take.

I believe followers will have a hard time surviving in the modern age. At the same time, bleeders can easily lose more than they stand to gain, even if they hit it big.

My money is on the leaders or innovators. Combine them and you get innovative leaders. That’s a powerful combination. Look for more discussion on ways to stay on the leading edge but not stray onto the bleeding edge in the future.

Nanda writes from Indianapolis.

This article published in the February, 2010 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.