Dave Nanda recently pulled out an article written seven years ago that still applies today. Even with all the technology corn breeders now have at their disposal, it still comes down to making selections about which plants stay and which plants go.
A corn breeder for nearly 50 years, Nanda is now director of Genetics and Technology for Seed Consultants, Inc.
The article was about peering into the brain of a corn breeder. A corn breeder starts with genetic traits, often diverse, and has goals in mind. He wants a high-yielding hybrid, but it also must have other traits, including disease resistance to various diseases.
These days, it must be able to handle high populations of neighbors as farmers push for higher yields. The higher yield will come from more ears, not bigger ears, Nanda insists. He's talking as many as 70,000 ears growing in equidistant spacing in the not-so-distant future.
Even with all this knowledge, and now with molecular markers and other techniques to speed up the process from maybe 8 to 10 years to 3 to 5 years, it still all comes down to decision making, Nanda says.
"At some point you have to be ruthless enough, in a kind way, to get rid of plants and throw them out of the program, whether you want to or not." That's because a corn breeder deals in numbers, looking for the right combination.
At some point, you must narrow the field to only the very best so you can get down to ones that might have the potential to be better than anything currently on the market.
"That can be the toughest part," he says. "It's difficult to throw out seeds or plants even though you know you have to do it, and you hope what you're keeping is better than what you're throwing out. Once you throw it out, that combination is gone."