What is normal weather anymore? This downed corn resulted from a 60-80-mph wind shear storm in central Iowa July 11, 2011. The storm damaged crops last summer from Nebraska to Maryland, with the worst damage in central Iowa. Its wind shear was triple the force of a severe storm, weather experts say.
When you have downed corn like this, is yield still your top selection criteria for a hybrid?
Growers expect yield and standability from hybrids, says Craig Moore, corn product development managerfor Beck’s Hybrids, Atlanta, Ind. The attitude change comes from increased expectations of equipment and hybrids, he adds. “Farmers are willing to give less than they once were. It’s a very delicate balance (for seed producers).”
Recent advances in hybrid development, trait designation and marker use to identify specific genes, have enabled breeders to concentrate on specific traits and speed the time to market for new hybrids.
Standability is a complicated issue, driven by soil type, weather patterns and agronomic practices, Moore says. It also becomes a greater issue as you move westward because of looser prairie soils, more tillage and stronger winds. In states like Ohio and Kentucky, standability is less of a concern because of heavier soils, but he’s seen more recent wind events in the eastern states recently that downed corn or caused green snap and root lodging.
“Any time a crop goes down, no matter how good the technology, there’s still a yield sacrifice,” says Adam Gittins, Neola, Iowa, who had a lot of downed corn from an 85-mph wind storm Labor Day 2011. “If you’ve ever sat in a combine trying to pick up corn that’s down, you know standability moves to the top of the list. Downed corn has a shorter window to harvest.”
New technology makes harvesting downed corn possible, but it’s slow – the combine drops to 1 mph – and still leaves a lot of corn on the ground. In 2011, the lower population, which remained standing, yielded the same as the higher-seeded ground.
The 85-mph winds flattened Gittins’ seeding-rate strip trials. He’d planted a 2011 cornfield at rates of 30,000 and 35,000 seeds/acre in eight-row increments. The side-by-side population test was part of a long-term project to determine ideal seeding rates for his 800 acres. The higher populations fared worst in the windstorm.
“I had the same hybrid across the entire field,” he says. “During the storm, everything at 35,000 population laid down. The wind really chewed it up,” Gittens says.
He was still able to get the corn out of the field, but he estimates 20 bu./acre were left in the field. Events like this, he says, is why standability is at the top of traits he looks for in hybrids despite all the advances in harvesting technology.
Patrick Reeg, technology manager with the Iowa Soybean Association On-Farm Network, has seen similar standability issues in replicated strip trials across the state. Higher seeding rates hold higher yield potential, but the thinner stalks that come with population increase its chance of going down in a storm.
“Seeding rates consistently impact standability,” says Reeg, who coordinates on-farm research for the On-Farm Network. “It’s not just about looking at a particular seed number and the characteristics a company may have put on it.” Technologies such as yield monitors can test seeding rates on growers’ farms under their management practices to evaluate standability and maximize profit, he says.
New row sensor technologies can make harvesting downed corn easier, he says, but standability is still high on most people’s list. “Even with improvements, it still leaves corn in the field.”
Like Gittins, Chad Kemp of West Manchester, Ohio, says it isn’t a choice between standability versus yield, but choosing the profitable route.
“If we know the corn is going down and if we need to get it out early, we’ll go get it and dry it down,” he says. “At current commodity prices…it’s worth it.”
Kemp, who farms 1,700 acres and is a seed representative with DuPont Pioneer, says his customers want good standability, but aren’t willing to sacrifice potential profitability or strong yields to get it.
“If it sacrifices yield, the farmer doesn’t want to talk about it,” he says. “He just looks for the seed that yields, yields, yields. Even with the increased interest in drought-tolerant crops, the customer asks: If there’s not a drought, do I give up yield?”
Gittins agrees that drought-tolerant crops will likely be on everyone’s mind for the 2013 season, but he’s also looking at the bigger weather patterns. Windstorms probably down crops three out of four years in his part of Iowa, he says. That weather pattern makes the hybrid’s standability rating almost as critical as its yield capacity and sometimes more important than its disease package.
“Three out of four years, the standability gains you what you would potentially lose otherwise,” he says. “I’m not looking for something with an iron-center stalk, but something with balance, and standability is definitely something I look at when I evaluate traits.”
Storms made to order
To test hybrid standability, DuPont Pioneer uses a wind machine that makes the Hollywood variety look like a desk fan.
The mobile wind machine – named Boreas after the Greek god of the north wind—produces winds above 100 mph. Moving through a research plot, Boreas generates winds to test experimental DuPont Pioneer corn hybrids. Five, 20-ton mobile wind machines mimic “the storm of the decade” to test hybrid standability and green snap. These are more common in moist years – even during dry seasons like 2012.
“You should have hybrids that stand up to all but the most extraordinary conditions,” saysAndy Baumgarten, DuPont Pioneer research scientist.
Pioneer estimates it’s possible up to 30% of North American corn acres can be impacted by root lodging, stalk lodging or brittlesnap in a given year. Root lodging occurs when wind exceeds the roots’ ability to support the plant, and the stalk leans or falls. Brittlesnap occurs when stalks break at an immature node pre-flowering. Stalk lodging is when stalks break below the ear due to violent winds. .
Since its 2009 introduction, Boreas has impacted hybrid development by allowing the company to remove hybrid lines susceptible to standability issue.