Drought-resistant corn tested by … drought

Pioneer agronomist Greg Luce inspects drought-resistant corn at the company’s research farm in Johnston, Iowa, where drought conditions have not been severe.
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September 6, 2012 - 1:12pm

Across much of the Midwest, the sub-par corn harvest of 2012 is coming in early, after the worst growing conditions in more than two decades.  

Farmers and seed companies alike are analyzing some fields with particular interest. The prolonged drought provided an ideal test for new hybrid corn varieties designed to withstand the driest conditions.

“It’s doing really well for us all things considered,” said Bill Simmons, who farms 1,300 acres of corn on the Clan Farm outside Atlantic, Iowa. He was referring to a 300-acre section devoted to Aquamax, a new drought-resistant product from Iowa-based DuPont Pioneer.

Photo by Rick Fredericksen, Harvest Public Media

An AQUAmax corn field on Clan Farm in drought-plagued southwest Iowa is yielding more bushels than traditional varieties.

“What I’ve been in so far we’re running about 50 bushels better in the Aquamax corn,” said Simmons, who based on early observations plans to plant more acres to the variety in 2013.

About 2 million acres of Aquamax corn were planted across the Corn Belt this year, making it the first drought-resistant lineup to be widely available. Pioneer’s major competitors are out with their own anti-drought varieties. Syngenta’s Artesian is wrapping up trials on 800 farms, and Monsanto’s Drought-Gard is being tested by 250 growers, mostly in Kansas and Nebraska.

While early signs are promising for these hybrids, experts say it is too soon to call it a win.

“I would say we do need to look at this fairly cautiously as we’re looking at the impact here,” said Chad Hart, a grain marketing specialist at Iowa State University. “Sometimes what we find is that to try something that works in the lab but we go into the field, conditions not the same. Things look good so far, but the proof is in the yield at the end of the year.”

Hart said the potential benefits are huge.

“When you look back over the past 60 years, here in Iowa looking at corn and soybeans, nearly half the time the reason we lose a crop is because of drought or very dry conditions, so if we can breed the crop to be tolerant of those conditions to still maintain that yield it is a game changer then, if we can pull it off,” he said.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said this year’s drought has been the best test possible for the new corn products.

“All farmers are interested in it,” he said. “ But it still has to be in its right place. We don’t expect a drought every year, we do expect some period of dry weather, and at the end of the day it’s going to be how does it yield compared to other crops.” 

Pioneer has been studying drought-resilient corn since the 1950s. At its test farm in Johnston, Iowa, parent company DuPont has spent much of its billion-dollar research budget developing the new hybrids. The company said drought-fighting traits in Aquamax are native to corn, and are not genetically modified.

“We now can map the corn plant and we can identify genes that have a positive influence on corn under drought.  And so what we do is pre-select hybrid lines that will contain this set of genes that are positive for their effects on drought,” said Greg Luce, an agronomist for Pioneer.

Todd Frazier, business director for Pioneer, said he expects Aquamax will be a key option as farmers wonder if the dry weather pattern might extend into another growing season.

“The future of Aquamax is definitely expansion,” he said. “We’ll see significant increase next year and we’ve just launched AM in Europe as well.”

According to Frazier, studies show a yield advantage of at least 7 percent for these new drought-busting varieties. But he said they still need water — they’re not a cactus.

Now, as summer winds down on the most widespread drought in more than half a century, farmers and the seed companies are anxiously monitoring the harvest for a judgment on the new drought-resistant technology.  Growers want proof it works. The agribusiness giants want validation their massive investments will pay off.

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