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Serving: United States

The case for short cornstalks

Hagie sprayer towers over short corn
TINY TREND: U.S. farmers may say goodbye to tall, towering stalks to embrace a small trend in corn production — short-stature corn.
Researchers are breeding and bioengineering shorter corn plants for the future.

Calvin Treat knows of an idea that will revolutionize and transform the future of crop production, if only it can overcome the local coffee shop talk.

“The guys in the coffee shop like saying, ‘Hey, I've got the tallest corn out there,’” says Treat, Bayer crop technical lead for corn. “It looks great, but I'll tell you, once they have a down year, they try to pick corn going in one direction or they have green snap, they're going to love short-stature corn.”

Short-stature corn reaches a maximum height of 7 feet and remains shorter than conventional corn throughout the growing season. It can be planted with row spacings as narrow as 20 inches and at higher planting rates of 50,000 seeds per acre.

Bayer is using a couple of different approaches to create short-stature corn. The first relies on conventional breeding methods where genes are bred into a plant to shorten the space between inner nodes, which reduces plant height. The second approach includes biotechnology where a gene is placed inside the plant that regulates the inner node link.

Both these approaches are considered in phase two by the company. Non-GMO short-stature corn is already in fields in Mexico, Treat says. “[U.S.] growers will see it in the field here in about two years just for testing.”

About two years after that, Bayer will start to launch it in the U.S., meaning the non-GMO short-stature corn could be in fields by 2022 or 2023. The biotech approach will take a few years longer as it must pass through the regulatory process.

Still, Treat is already touting the benefits of short-stature corn to growers.

Calvin Treat shows a traditional tall corn plant.
CHANGING MINDSET: Calvin Treat, Bayer crop technical lead for corn. shows a traditional tall corn plant. He says breeding and biotechnology are making small corn plants that will offer benefits to farmers in the future.

Standability for harvestability

Lodging issues in short-stature corn are significantly reduced almost to the point of zero incidences. “I can't say zero because every once in a while, you will see a little bit,” Treat says, “but there's hardly any lodging, hardly any green snap or fall root lodging.”

Unlike tall corn that sways, bends and sometimes snaps under variable weather conditions, short corn does not. With the combination of a thicker stalk and weight at the bottom of the stalk, there is wind resistance built in.

“We've got some pictures from UAVs from a Climate FieldView this year where they're testing short corn versus tall corn. It is unbelievable the difference,” Treat explains. “We had a storm come through. The tall corn is lying flat. The short corn is standing nice and straight.”

a short corn plant  versus a tall corn plant
COMPACT NODES: Here is a short corn plant (left) versus a tall corn plant. Notice the internode spacing shortens, creating a small, thick stalk.

Crop accessibility

For the most part, traditional farm equipment can travel through waist-high cornfields without damaging plants. If it's too high, farmers risk plant damage.

“So, a year like this year, where it's wet, a grower has a lot of acres and he wants to get out there and do some sidedressing for fertilizer,” Treat says, “he's got a lot better options to go in and do that with a short-stature corn even with conventional equipment.”

If you have high-clearance equipment, short-stature corn allows for total season accessibility. This opens the door for fertilizer, fungicide, insecticide or herbicide treatments whenever a grower wants.

“Your using real-time data from your Climate apps to be able to customize, optimize how you use all that crop protection and make your field yield, and be the best it can be going through the year,” Treat says.

Calvin Treat walks out from the short and tall corn
HOW SHORT? Calvin Treat, Bayer crop technical lead for corn, walks out from the short and tall corn. The short corn is just taller than Treat. It reaches only 7 feet.

Yield viability

Short-stature corn is a mini version of the company’s current corn product lineup. Grabbing a tall and short cornstalk from Bayer’s research plot outside of Jerseyville, Ill., Treat says, “This hybrid is the exact same hybrid, same corn except for one gene that's short for short-stature.”

Ultimately, there is one thing on a farmer’s mind — does it yield?

“The short-stature yields just as well and, in some instances, better than tall corn.” Treat says. As to whether the biotech hybrids yield better than conventional breeding, he has not seen a difference. One thing he notes is farmers will be able to plant more corn on fewer acres, increasing overall yield per acre.

Perhaps with these corn advancements, in the not so distant future Treat will overhear coffee shop conversations of farmers bragging on having the shortest corn in the county.

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