Hybrid Small Grains

Hybrid corn, millet, and sorghum varieties have dominated the production of these crops in Canada and the U.S. since the 1970s thanks to their high yield potential, disease resistance, and other traits that hybrids can offer. For the most part, open-pollinated varieties of these grains have been relegated to specialty grain markets and forage/silage production.

Hybrid small grains offer significant advantages when compared to open-pollinated varieties. But in contrast to corn, millet, and sorghum, hybrid small grain varieties make up only a minor percentage of small grain production in North America. Could the advantages of hybrid small grains lead to broader adoption in the future?

Hybrid small grains offer the following advantages over open-pollinated varieties:
-more even emergence
-improved pest and disease resistance
-a shortened flowering and pollination window
-more even maturity
-improved resistance to lodging
-higher yields

Improved pest and disease resistance, more even maturity, improved lodging resistance can lead to higher grain quality. This is especially important if target markets require higher quality grain – such as distillers or brewers.

At the same time hybrid varieties have some drawbacks, such as:
-higher seeds costs
-inability to use saved or held back seed-higher N requirements
-geographically spotty seed availability

Additionally, hybrid small grains could introduce more risk into production systems as a result of higher production costs. The risk posed is much higher in dryland grain producing areas with colder and drier climates, such as the Canadian Prairies or U.S. High Plains where growing season length and precipitation levels can vary drastically from one year to the next.

One way around higher seeds costs and N costs would be to adapt a row crop planter to use for small grains. The use of row crop planters for small grains allows for a 50-70% reduction in seeding rates and applied N rates. The precise spacing of small grain seeds means that individual plants increase tillering and have more space for leaf and root growth. This means that small grains planted using a row crop planter can match or exceed yields of small grains planted using a conventional drill or air-seeder. Another advantage of using a row crop planter for small grains is that row spacing can be set for interseeding a low stature cover crop (like red clover), a mixed grain intercrop (like peas or flax), a same growing season relay crop (like dry beans or soybeans), or a multi-season relay crop (like alfalfa).

Although hybrid small grains offer a number of advantages over open-pollinated varieties, it is unlikely that they will see widespread adoption that is seen in corn, millet, and sorghum production in the near future due high seed and N costs. But if high yields and high grain quality are important production goals, hybrid small grains may be worth considering.

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