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Improved genetics over time big key to higher corn yields

Tom J. Bechman Dave Nanda standing in cornfield
GAME CHANGER: Dave Nanda has worked with corn for six decades, most of those spent breeding to make the crop better. Today, he assists with projects like Corn Watch to help growers learn more.
This corn breeder can track hybrid improvements over 60 years.

When Dave Nanda took his first job as a plant breeder in the early 1960s, many farmers were still planting 16,000 to 18,000 corn seeds per acre, even on good soils. Many of those crops were raised in 36-, 38- or even 40-inch rows. Changes in cultural practices, such as higher seeding rates and the resulting higher harvest populations, planted primarily in 30-inch rows or narrower, have helped move corn yields forward.

“There is still no doubt in my mind that genetic improvement over time has played a huge role in pushing the trend yield curve upward,” Nanda says. He came to the U.S. from India to study corn breeding at the University of Wisconsin and practiced as a corn breeder with several companies throughout the Midwest for the next several decades. He spent his longest stint at Stewart Seeds, Greensburg, Ind., developing and releasing several new hybrids. Stewart Seeds is now part of Bayer.

Today, Nanda is director of genetics for Seed Genetics Direct, Jeffersonville, Ohio. He also authors the Corn Illustrated and Breeder’s Journal columns for several Farm Progress magazines, including Indiana Prairie Farmer. For the past several years, he has been the chief consulting agronomist for what is now the Corn Watch project. Indiana Prairie Farmer reveals final yield for the Corn Watch ’20 field online tomorrow, wrapping up another season filled with many take-home lessons. 

Expert advice

The trend line for U.S. corn yields has grown steeper over the past couple of decades, meaning that on average, yields are increasing at a faster pace than they did before. Improved technology in planting equipment; new tools for scouting, like drones, which can identify problem areas while they can still be addressed; and better pest control, including more common use of fungicides, have all helped boost the trajectory of the trend yield line.

“Still, the genetics of hybrids you plant is very important for getting high yields,” Nanda says. He believes that is the fundamental foundation upon which average annual increases in corn yield build over time.

After 60 years of working with corn and corn growers, when Nanda is asked to give just one piece of advice to a corn grower, based on what he has learned both about the crop and growers, here is what he says: “It’s really an impossible task to boil it down to one piece of advice. But I will try, and I will start with what I think is still the most fundamental key to success.

“Plant 50% of your corn acres with the hybrid that performed well on your farm during the last two years, then 25% with the hybrid that was the highest-yielding last year. Then plant the last 25% of your corn acres with a new hybrid represented by your seed representative, or that comes recommended from a different brand.”

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