Shorter corn, bigger yields

C&I Issue 10, 2019

Farmers could soon benefit from a big boost in corn yields thanks to the development of new shorter and more resilient varieties of its corn. Bayer Crop Science says its new ‘short stature’ corns now being developed for US farmers are all below 7 feet tall, compared with 9-11 feet for typical corn hybrids, and should be available by the middle of the next decade.

This type of technology is already applied in several other crops – most famously wheat through the work of Norman Borlaug during the so-called Green Revolution, according to Bob Reiter, head of Bayer CropScience R&D, speaking at the Future of Farming Dialogue in October. While similar shorter varieties of rice, sorghum and other cereals have already been developed, the company reports that it has previously been difficult to create short stature corn with no impact to ear quality and yield. However, this has now become possible thanks to developments in breeding and genetics techniques.

Short stature corn is expected to boost productivity in several ways. The first is via improved stability to adverse environmental conditions, including better resistance to ‘lodging’ and ‘green snap’ – when plants are uprooted or the stalks break due for example, to high winds. Annual yield losses from stalk lodging in the US reportedly range from 5 to 25%, while losses due to root lodging vary from 2 to 31%. Depending on the extent of plant breakage, green snap can result in average yield losses of 15% to 53%.

Other advantages of short stature crops include greater ease and flexibility of in-season crop access, Reiter continued, enabling precision application of inputs. They should also require less land and water, while key nutrients such as nitrogen can be better targeted.

Bayer reports the crops are being developed both by conventional breeding techniques and a biotech solution – in collaboration with BASF. It notes that the research is still in an early stage of development and several years of testing still lie ahead: ‘We are encouraged by results we’ve seen thus far and will share more of our data as the product concept nears commercialisation.’

Another company researching the concept of short stature corn, Iowa-based Stine Seeds, also notes that the technology allows for thicker planting of corn at higher densities with narrower row spacing. The company has experimented with planting its High Population or HP corn hybrids in ultra-narrow rows at 60,000 plants per acre, with corn yields sometimes exceeding 300 bushels/acre.

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