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A Perfect Drought

Commodity Classic, held every winter, has become an important barometer of what Midwestern corn and soybean growers are thinking. This year's meeting held February 28 through March 1 clearly shows high corn and soybean prices dominate the thoughts of anyone who plans to lower a planter into the ground this spring. The market analysis sessions at the meeting were packed with attendees, and the trade show was filled with growers ready to spend the extra money.

In one marketing session, a couple of scenarios based on corn acres planted and average national yields were spelled out. This growing season, if acres planted to corn number around 87 million, the weather is very good, and the national corn yield is 160 bu./acre, then corn prices could drop below $3/bu. But if a drought lowers the average yield to 150 bu./acre, corn prices will stay up.

So weather is still the big trump card in the corn price game. You can bet most growers will soon be glued to weather reports from across the Corn Belt, all hoping for a drought somewhere else. But someday, weather watching will diminish because drought-tolerant corn and soybeans will be planted. Raising corn will become less of a gamble.

Seed companies like Pioneer Hi-Bred International are committing big dollars to developing drought-tolerant corn for market in three to eight years. Research scientist Jeff Schussler is helping Pioneer find and produce hybrids that grow when the summer runs dry. He says it is difficult to develop these hybrids because drought tolerance depends on a suite of genes. Researchers are working to identify the genes, which affect characteristics like deeper roots, fast leafing, and maintenance of green leaves.

The best way to identify drought tolerance is through field testing, Schussler says. Because rain quickly throws off these field tests, Pioneer had to find test spots with excellent fertility and no rain. The company found a location in Woodland, CA (shown above), where corn may yield 300+ bu./acre but receives virtually no rain (less than 1 in. from May to October). It also has very little insect and disease pressure, including no corn borer activity. Here scientists can precisely control water through drip tape and study what hybrids perform best in all moisture scenarios.

In the near future, this breeding and fieldwork will pay off as hybrids with drought tolerance finally enter the seed bag. Growers will be able to buy seed that can produce a bumper crop with minimal rain. The timing may be just right as the demand for corn in biofuels and feed climbs.

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