Genetics taking corn to new heights

On the harsh High Plains, farmers are seeing the benefits of drought-tolerant corn. But with the growing variable climate, will it be enough?

On a mid-July morning, Matt Splitter walked deep into his dryland corn crop on the central Kansas plains and plucked an ear from the stalk.

It’s not a perfect cob. Not all the yellow kernels develop, Splitter said, pointing to the ear tip back. He kicked at the ground between the rows.

“There is no moisture there at all,” he said.

Rain has come sparingly. The field near Sterling, he estimated, has received between 4 to 5 inches of moisture since he planted it in late April.

It might be a tough year for dryland corn. However, Splitter said, a decade ago his family would never have thought about sowing acreage to such a risky, water-intensive crop in an area where rainfall can be variable.

Corn still is still a risky crop compared to wheat and sorghum, he said. But Splitter and other Midwest farmers are better equipped to take that gamble.

The reason? Better farming practices and precision tools. And, don’t forget, improved genetics.

“None of these would have developed,” said Splitter of the corn varieties available just a decade ago. “There wouldn’t be an ear, nothing. There wouldn’t have been enough moisture, there wouldn’t have been enough vigor, to shoot anything.”

The genetic race

If scientists are right, the world is growing warmer and the weather patterns more variable. According to a 2012 study by U.S. Department of Agriculture economists, by 2030, the fluctuating climate could cost Corn Belt farmers between $1.1 to $4.1 billion.

Companies like Dupont Pioneer, Monsanto and Syngenta are working to develop corn genetics that not only have a rising yield curve, but also can withstand drought, cold, heat and a declining aquifer in the High Plains region. Crops of the future also will need to have better ability to thrive on marginal ground, as the amount of arable land shrinks and the world population approaches 9 billion.

Drought tolerance is important, but so are genetics that can withstand these irregular climates, said Patrick Schnable, director of Iowa State University’s Plant Sciences Institute.

“The challenge we face is weather patterns are becoming more variable,” said Schnable, who specializes in genetics. “Our corn growing systems are adapting, but the concern is the amount of weather variation we will experience in the future is greater than our current crops can handle.”

The challenge of making crops resistant to variable weather has recently become an active topic among researchers, he said.

But breeding a highly productive crop with the ability to adapt to inconsistent and stressful conditions isn’t a simple process. Essentially, Schnable said, the genes that control traits and the genes that confer stability of those traits across environments are different.

The complexity of water-stressed corn

However, genetic advancements are making a difference, especially on the High Plains.

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As corn acres increase outside of the Corn Belt region, drought tolerance has become a focus for seed companies. These non-traditional corn-growing areas often don’t have the soil moisture holding capacity or the rainfall that is typical of big corn states like Iowa or Illinois, Schnable said.

“The drought tolerance of corn has been improved dramatically,” he said. “There are limits, of course. If you don’t have water, you can’t grow corn, but we are better off now than we were in previous years.”

Splitter, a fifth-generation farmer, added corn to the rotation when he came back to the farm in 2012, planting Monsanto’s newly released DroughtGard variety.

“We’ve gone to a rotation that has corn as one of the main rotations in it,” Splitter said. “The genetics in the corn currently make it feasible.”

Monsanto combined a drought-tolerant biotech trait with a drought-selected germplasm. Others in the race, including Pioneer and Syngenta, developed hybrids through traditional breeding.

Syngenta invests $1.3 billion globally on crop protection and seed research and development annually, said Duane Martin, the commercial traits lead for Syngenta.

Syngenta began to develop water-optimized corn hybrids in the early 2000s. The first commercial Agrisure Artesian hybrids were launched by Syngenta in 2012 with the goal to maximize yield when it rains and increase yield when it doesn’t. Agrisure Artesian technology is also stacked with insect control and herbicide resistance traits.

Martin said the company tested Artesian traits across the corn belt and found these hybrids yielded about 12 percent better than hybrids without the trait when under typical drought conditions.

Meanwhile, breeders at DuPont Pioneer also have chased corn’s drought challenge aggressively for two decades. The company introduced Optimum AQUAmax hybrids beginning in 2011. A 2015 study across 10,000 farms showed these hybrids were, on average, 6.5 percent higher yielding under water-limited conditions and 1.9 percent higher yielding under favorable growing conditions.

Farmers want two things: Consistency and predictability, Martin said. That means drought-tolerant hybrids must yield well in good conditions but protect against severe yield loss when stressed.

“We didn’t want a drought-tolerant hybrid to cause a grower to sacrifice yield potential when the conditions were good,” he said. “We wanted to deliver hybrids that yield as well as any elite hybrid, but also offer downside risk assurance when conditions are difficult.”

Water stress in corn is complex, Martin said.

“You don’t solve a something like drought stress with a single gene that acts at a specific time,” he said. “The corn plant has to get through water stress when it occurs.”

Scientists are analyzing the corn genome to identify multiple means for the plant to use water more efficiently, considering both severity of drought and timing, he said. For instance, highly productive areas might not have a drought that lasts for months but instead suffers from gaps in rainfall that come at important times in the crop’s growth cycle.

Genetic research keys in on how to blunt the stress during key times like flowering and grain fill, said Calvin Treat, the global corn and soybean technology lead for Monsanto.

“It’s about testing the hybrids you are developing in the right season so you can get the stress tolerance and see how it will react,” Treat said. “We know enough about the genetics in the different families of corn that we can make some pretty good predictions that are in the genes of a certain corn plant.”

A gene’s performance is eventually validated in the field under managed stress environments, including in plots in semi-arid regions like southeastern Colorado for Syngenta and Gothenburg, Nebraska for Monsanto.

Researchers simulate different levels of drought in an attempt to test the genes identified. It might mean taking them to the edge of death by withholding water, then recharging the soil profile to determine what will happen then, Martin said.

“You do the lab portion that identifies the gene, but you don’t know if it accomplished what you set out to do unless it is in real-world conditions,” Martin said.

Corn’s expansion

Corn’s genetic refinements are evident across the United States, Schnable said. Better bred varieties allow corn acres to expand in the western states and areas that that might not have had corn before.

Colorado farmers are expected to harvest 1.46 million acres of corn this year, compared to 950,000 acres in 1990, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. In Kansas, farmers planted 5.4 million acres this year, compared to 1.6 million 30 years ago. In Nebraska, corn acres have expanded by 2 million for the same period.

Schnable said the increased acres are a conversation coming up in classes. Dennis McNinch, the father of one of Schnable’s students, is among the High Plains farmers expanding into corn.

McNinch hails from Ness County in west-central Kansas, where irrigation is nonexistent and rainfall averages about 21 inches a year.

He began increasing his corn acreage on his farm starting in 1995, moving to a wheat, corn and fallow rotation.

“Corn is a big part of our operation and a lot of that is because of the genetics and technology,” he said.

“There were definitely times when the hybrids were not as advanced, and they fell flat on their face, and I wondered ‘why did I do this?’” he said. “But I was patient and the dividends paid off.”

For instance, when rains shut off last August, he still harvested a decent crop.

“We are still very much dependent on rainfall,” McNinch said. “But even in drier years, it is holding on more than you would think.”

The next frontier

The next frontier of crop protection is abiotic stress, Martin said. Scientists are honing in on the genetics that will help manage variability across microclimates and soil types.

“We aren’t creating any more farmland,” Martin said. “We are losing it rapidly due to development. In some cases, the conditions where we have to produce crops are changing, as well. We have to give farmers the right tools to maintain and increase production in many cases with the same inputs or fewer. That makes our efforts that much more important.”

However, management is just as important as genetics, Schnable said. In harsh conditions, it becomes even more important.

Splitter estimated on his farm in central Kansas, management is about 75 percent of a crop’s success. Genetics makes up the rest.

“It’s a whole systems approach,” Splitter said. “You use the corn genetics compatible with your style of farming.”

For instance, he said, on this no-till field, he variable-rate planted about 20,000 seeds per acre. The shorter season, 101-day crop was planted into decent soil moisture, which helped establish the crop before the rain shut off.

Splitter estimated the field at 85 bushels an acre. Another rain would sustain it at that breakeven profit level.

“It isn’t looking good,” he said. “But with the genetics of 10 years ago, we probably wouldn’t it have a corn crop. It would be gone.”

Yet, in a world that might think there is too much corn, boosting production might seem problematic. Just because farmers can grow corn doesn’t mean they should, Splitter said.

Corn prices around Splitter’s hometown of Bushton were $3.45 a bushel in late July.

Splitter said he doesn’t believe in monocultures. Corn adds to his crop rotation that includes sorghum, soybeans and wheat.

Schnable, however, is peering into the not-so-distant future with concern. He’s more worried about the crop’s stability than yield.

“The fact we have too much yield this year doesn’t mean we will have too much the next year,” he said. “We may have feast and famine years, and we need to make sure the famine years don’t lead to actual famines.”

The lessons of corn are trickling into other crops, Schnable said.

“What is happening now is good, but we need a moonshot level of research on developing crops adapted to a world with more variable weather patterns,” he said. “Our civilization really depends on a small handful of crops, and they are not really adapted to what is coming.”

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].