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
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
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.
[to top of second column]
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
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
Well, lo and behold, Fields threw some light on that too. "It is
a focus of current seed research and development," he said, "and
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
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.
[By JAN YOUNGQUIST]