Fields of Dreams

With improved crop science and farming practices, today’s award-winning corn yields may become tomorrow’s average. Increasing yields spurs innovation and new investment across the agriculture industry. In the end, 'everyone is a winner.'
By Chris Hanson | February 16, 2014

U.S. farmers produced a record 13.9 billion bushels of corn in 2013-’14, with an average yield of 159 bushels per acre.  While even higher numbers were expected, the results are nonetheless impressive. It takes a whole lot of 170-bushel corn harvests in Iowa, Indiana and Illinois to compensate for mostly 140-bushel crops in North Dakota, Kansas and Colorado. Each state has its outliers, no doubt, some pushing into 300-bushel territory and a rare few achieving even greater heights with both irrigated and nonirrigated corn. Reminding us just how far yields have come, the Virginia farmer who won the National Corn Growers Association’s corn yield contest this past season harvested an incredible 455 bushels per acre. 

Prize-winning crops don’t happen by accident, though. Breeding and growing corn to a site’s full yield potential presents both biotic and abiotic challenges. Biotic challenges refer to biological factors, such as disease and insects, whereas abiotic relates to physical challenges, such as soil limitations and water availability. Defining a field’s maximum yield potential, and identifying factors that might prevent a grower from achieving it, is the basis for the theoretical formulas plant physiologists use to estimate peak corn production on any given plot of land. “The way I always think about it is, how do I eliminate or reduce as many abiotic and biotic factors as possible so you’re more likely to reach the maximum yield potential?” says Dave Bubeck, product program director at DuPont Pioneer. 

The theoretical formulas might not account for everything, such as production practices, precision agriculture and improved plant genetics, Bubeck says. “We know that even under those yield contest conditions, there are still abiotic and biotic stresses put on the corn plant during the growing season.” Most of the producers in yield competitions utilize some of their best land for the contests, he adds.

Although growing corn at record yields requires rich land and a depth of farming experience, today’s award-winning results may become ordinary in the future. More than 15 years ago, Dave Nanda, director of genetics and technology at Seed Consultants Inc., made a prediction that 500 bushels of corn per acre could someday become normal. With more than three decades of corn breeding experience, Nanda has been working with the yellow stuff all his life. During his years as a corn breeder, Nanda fixated on improving corn yields. He saw the industry move from open-pollenating corn varieties to hybrids then to incremental improvements in fertilizer, insecticides and so on. “But they were not big jumps,” he says. “What I realized was that what we are not harvesting is sunlight. We pretty much capture only 5 or 6 percent of the solar energy with corn plants. And among the agricultural crops, corn is one of the most efficient.” 

In 1989, Nanda set off breeding 70,000 seeds per acre and finding plants that survived well at that population and produced a good ear of corn. “It would be nice for farmers to grow at that high a population [compared to] 24,000 to 26,000 plants per acre. That would almost be like a three-fold jump for them.” 

Facing initial skepticism and disbelief, Nanda welcomed Prairie Farmer editor, Tom Bechman, out to observe his work in the late 1990s. Bechman was surprised at the findings and asked Nanda to write about the endeavor, Nada recalls. “With any new invention or new idea, people first say, ‘Oh, that can’t be done.’ But lo and behold, we’re already approaching those kinds of yields.” 

Reengineering corn is the key to reaching the 500-bushel goal. The corn plant of the future will exhibit extremely upright leaves to harness more solar energy. It will also have smaller ears of corn, and greater numbers of them. The plant will need to survive in greater plant population densities and have good disease tolerance, Nanda explains. Current corn plants usually exhibit just one or two large ears, he adds. “Who cares whether you have a one-pound ear?” Nanda says. “Or, you might have less than half-a-pound ear, but there might be more than twice as many.” 

In addition to a better designed corn plant, Nanda suggests using precision farming technology, such as global positioning systems (GPS), and planting shorter distances between plants. GPS allows farmers more planting exactitude, giving them the ability to plant corn in the nine- to 10-inch rows that create high plant populations. 

Increasing a farmer’s yields into the 400 to 500 bushel per acre range would spur innovation across the agriculture industry. “When farmers start doubling their yield, I have no problem thinking John Deere or other companies will start producing machines to handle it,” Nanda says. 

By increasing yields, farmers will be able to produce more product on the same amount of land. Seed companies would benefit through extra sales, and machinery companies can build new planting and harvesting machines. “In the end, everyone is a winner,” Nanda says.

Author: Chris Hanson
Staff Writer, Ethanol Producer Magazine
[email protected]