There are no viral videos of kittens playing with an iPad at www.arkansasvarietytesting.com, but there are results of performance tests of row crop varieties and hybrids, which make it a popular cyberspace destination when farmers are planning seed purchases.

In January 2011 — usually the busiest month — more than 26,000 variety test reports were downloaded from the Web site, said Don Dombek, director of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture’s variety testing program. The Web site publishes timely reports on variety tests in soybean, cotton, rice, wheat, corn and grain sorghum.

“It is one of those essential services that we tend to take for granted, sometimes,” said Lanny Ashlock, research coordinator for the Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board, which helps fund the variety testing program as do other commodity groups.

Ashlock, a former Extension soybean specialist and seed company agronomist who now also manages special projects for the U of A System’s vice president for agriculture, said, “Variety testing is a major priority for the Division of Agriculture. It is a service that we know is immediately useful to farmers, seed companies, specialists and consultants.”

“Seed companies are vital partners in our variety testing program, and we appreciate their continuing high level of participation,” Ashlock said. “However, there is a trend of less participation in some states.

“I would argue that it will always be important to a seed company, and it certainly is important to farmers, specialists and consultants to have unbiased tests that compare varieties across a range of locations, soils and other conditions.”

Companies decide which varieties to enter in tests. The program is funded by fees for each variety entered, commodity board grants and the Division of Agriculture, Dombek said.

Brandy Carroll, coordinator of the Arkansas Farm Bureau rice and soybean divisions, said a policy adopted at the annual state convention in December 2010 expresses strong support for objective, public variety testing.

The policy says, “We support public, objective research and reporting of results without private company review, oversight, or other influence. We object to the current trend of certain private seed companies to restrict objective research on purchased varieties and control the reporting of comparative data. We strongly support and recommend that all crop varieties be publicly tested and results reported to growers in Arkansas.”

Dombek said tests are conducted by Agricultural Experiment Station personnel at research stations throughout the state’s row crop region and on the farms of cooperating producers.

“We structure our tests to be sure the results are unbiased and provide a comparison of the different varieties and hybrids under the same growing conditions,” Dombek said. “Our multiple locations allow most farmers to match test results to the soils and other conditions on their farm.”

Farmer John Freeman of Lincoln County said, “It is very important to have this unbiased comparison of varieties.” He said he uses variety test results as his first source of information to select varieties for testing on his farm before committing a large acreage.

“Yield is not always the deciding factor,” Freeman said. He listed disease ratings, test location, soils, timing and planting date as very important in his selection of corn and soybean varieties.

Brad Doyle of Eagle Seed in Weiner, Ark., said, “I trust the program; I know it is unbiased and provides highly reliable comparisons.” He said Eagle Seed enters its varieties in the tests.

“It’s great to compare our varieties to others,” Doyle said. “Ratings for disease resistance and other traits help farmers choose varieties that will have the best chance of profitable yields on their farm.”

Steve Stevens, a Desha County farmer and chairman of the Cotton Incorporated Arkansas State Support Committee, noted, “We absolutely have confidence in the variety test results. We use them to select varieties to put into tests on our farm. It is very important to have data from a number of locations.”

Stevens also invites seed companies to conduct trials on his land in cotton, soybeans and corn. “I don’t look too hard at company test results unless it is done on my farm,” he said.

Chuck Farr, an agricultural consultant in Crittenden County, said, “I know the variety test is unbiased, and you can look at tendencies at different locations. We need that information for all of our crops.”

Variety test results don’t replace on-farm, in-field trials, but they provide valuable information, Farr said. “It’s not the only tool we rely on, but it is very important.” He said he looks first at disease ratings and soil types in variety test results, and then yields.

Jason Kelley, Extension specialist for wheat, corn and grain sorghum, and Tom Barber, a cotton specialist, agreed that variety selection is “the cornerstone” of a profitable crop.

“The variety tests provide a lot of very reliable, unbiased information that helps a producer select varieties that are well-adapted to his conditions,” Kelley said. “It is just invaluable to me as a tool for advising farmers.”

Barber said the Arkansas cotton variety test “is one of the most comprehensive in the country,” providing data on important genetic traits on a range of soils. “We select varieties from the test to put in on-farm trials,” he said.

“Our producers rely on these tests. I think most companies recognize that,” Barber said.

Dombek said, “Our goal is to continue to cooperate with seed companies to provide comprehensive information on all varieties sold in Arkansas for all crops. We hope that all of the seed companies will continue to work with us.

“Variety tests have been conducted by the Division of Agriculture for well over 100 years in some crops, and I’m concerned that variety testing will not be as relevant in the future if our producers can’t find information on all varieties sold in Arkansas in our reports and on our Web site.”