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From the Spring 2013 Logan County Farm Outlook

What about drought-tolerant corn?

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[April 03, 2013]  In 2012, Logan County farmers planted 217,000 acres of corn and 119,000 acres of soybeans. Due to drought, production was down on both crops, with corn taking the beating at only 54 percent and soybeans coming in at 87 percent of 2011 average yields.

What makes those comparative statistics worse is that the 2011 yields were also well below average due to drought.

What is good, however, is that those yields were as high as they were, given the prolonged bouts of extreme heat and little to no rain at critical times in both 2011 and 2012.

Last year's aberrant weather caused tensions to rise early and never let down as the season progressed. The drought was so hostile and seemingly hopeless that when the season was over and there was some yield, it led many people to ask, "What made it possible to get any product(ion) from those fields?"

Some will tell you that it has a lot to do with the rich soils that this area is fortunate to have. And that is significant. Deep down, those clay-based loam soils held moisture where other types of soils could not.

Experts will also tell you it was drought-tolerant hybrids.

Corn being of great interest to Logan County farmers, we decided to take a closer look at what has been happening with the development of drought-tolerant corn hybrids.

Nathan Fields, director of biotechnology and economic analysis with the National Corn Growers Association, provided a lot of answers to the most basic questions.

Fields said that seed producers have had low-water hybrids for years. "They are just being more robustly researched and marketed currently," he said.

When it comes to plant characteristics that stand up to weather, what has been achieved?

Fields said: "For weather (abiotic stress), there is standability (stalk strength), drought, cold (to an extent, shorter relative maturities) are the main ones."

Abiotic stressors are nonliving elements of nature or chemical combinations that can affect plant health from germination to final product. In the field, plants can be affected by salts; nutrient imbalances; harmful minerals such as boron that is natural in the soil; excess water; prolonged high temperatures that interrupt natural daily respiration cycles; temperatures that are too low, worsened when combined with water, which can lead to waterborne decay and diseases; evaporation from excessive wind, worsened when combined with heat and sun (drought); herbicides and pesticides; and other influences.

Relative maturity represents the time in the field from seed to harvest. How long a crop takes to mature in any given year will vary. Whether to sow or to harvest, timing is critical between the last day to plant, or when kernel moisture reaches optimum for harvest, and potentially harmful freezes. A crop in the field is subject to all sorts of influences, natural or otherwise, beyond the control of the farmer. So, the shorter the time to maturity, the better the chances of best yield.

Is there still room for improvement in the current drought-tolerant hybrids? Are there traits that might be incorporated to improve resilience and bring higher yields?

Fields says yes, "quite a bit of room, actually." He added: "There is a good amount of research and development going into increased drought tolerance right now by all major seed developers and retailers -- both from a breeding and transgenic approach."

Since a corn plant takes up its moisture primarily through its roots, "any kind of plant protection that saves the roots adds to drought mitigation," Fields said. "Thus, rootworm protection has a drought-tolerance effect."

What characteristics are being worked on now that might provide higher or more reliable yields in the future?

Fields said: "Increased protection against insects, greater nitrogen-use efficiency, soil-type-specific hybrids, planting-population-specific hybrids, cold-wet tolerance and more."

What are the next goals in improving plant traits?

On the horizon, there is room for plants to have more tolerance for cold, heat and water (in flooding situations) and more nutrient uptake, Fields said.

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Do drought-resistant hybrids provide the same or higher yields in good climate years? How do drought-resistant hybrids compare for highest yield varieties?

Fields said that drought hybrids are yield-checked against other commercial lines. They are intended to not have a yield drag in optimal conditions.

One of the contributors to loss last year actually took place when corn arrived at the grain elevators. Entire loads were rejected for Aspergillus contamination. Aspergillus most often occurs under drought conditions. Poorly formed or weak kernels are breached by insects or nicked, setting up for fungus.

Not really meaning it, late last fall a Logan County farmer quipped: "If they could come up with a hybrid that would prevent Aspergillus..."

Well, lo and behold, Fields threw some light on that too. "It is a focus of current seed research and development," he said, "and post-detection mitigation."

Fields added: "Corn borer traits help reduce the vector site, and there are many other practices being deployed."

Fields said that commercially, DuPont Pioneer's AQUAmax and Syngenta's Artesian lines are bred to be drought-resistant.

AQUAmax features key native traits that improve performance under water-limited environments. Featured mechanisms include leaf stomatal control.

Syngenta announced this month that its newest drought product, Agrisure Duracade, has been fully deregulated and will launch in the U.S. for the 2014 planting season. This product doubles protection from rootworm by adding to the Agrisure RW trait with its own expression of a unique protein. "USDA data show a tenfold reduction in Western corn rootworm beetle emergence," according to Syngenta.

Monsanto just received word that one of its newest biotech-based drought products, DroughtGard, has also been deregulated. According to Monsanto, this spring U.S. farmers across the western Great Plains will be the first to plant the newest drought-tolerant corn system as part of on-farm trials. DroughtGard hybrids are from the Genuity corn family.

Research and development that began in the 1980s was conducted in drier geographic territories. Traditional crossbreeding was slow and less exact, requiring a "wait and see" from one crop cycle to another. In the past 10 years, the use of biotechnology gene selection has significantly advanced hybrid development for all commercial crop production.

While the Midwest may not have been the targeted user of the drought-tolerant hybrids when their development began, after two consecutive years of extreme drought, the super seeds are the Logan County farmer's good fortune now.



Spring 2013
Logan County Farm Outlook

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