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Environment vs. Genetics in 2009

Environment vs. Genetics in 2009
Some believe environment ruled.

The USDA crops report last week surprised most market analysts. Due to various problems with harvest most believed that USDA would drop the estimated corn production in the U.S., both in terms of national average yield and total U.S. production, from the November estimate.


Unless you live in your toolshed and never come out, you know by now that this scenario didn’t play out. Instead USDA raised estimates again, causing markets to tumble in the short term. Many fields in northern Illinois, northwest Indiana and Wisconsin remain to be harvested. Bryce Knorr of Farm Progress Companies estimates as much as a half billion bushels may still be in the field. What USDA apparently did was assume that that corn was in the bin in making estimates. It’s why they noted that the agency will take an unusual step- coming back and doing new estimates in those states where corn in the field was an issue. Normally, the January report if the final report for the preceding year’s crop.


Farmers and consultants are left wondering how such a strange year, which featuring late planting and the coolest July on record in many areas, could produce what USDA now believes will be the crop with the highest yield per acre in history. Dave Nanda, a consultant and long-time plant breeder, now associated with 1stChocie Seeds, Milton, Ind., believes that last season’s performance was an excellent example of the impact of environment on corn performance. This time, the influence was primarily good, at least as far as yield goes.


“You can take tow twins in a third world country, separate them at birth by war or whatever means, and let one grow up in his homeland, starved for nourishment,” Nanda relates. Then the other one comes to America and gets an education at Harvard. He becomes a famous scientist while his twin brother struggles to survive in Africa. Was it genetics or environment that explained why they had different lives?”


Nanda believes the same principle applies in corn. The genetic base is important. Some believe it’s the driver, even last year. Others insist that new GMO traits explain the big crop. But Nanda believes the impact of environment is also huge. He points to last year and says that it was plenty of moisture during the critical season for corn, plus cool temperatures during crucial reproduction times, that likely resulted in record production.


Jim Newman, long-retired weather expert who once serve the Purdue University Agronomy Department, studies 20 years worth of crop production data before he left Purdue. The study covered about two decades. His research noted that in almost every case, years with wet, cool summers favorable for corn production produced big crops. And in fact, USDA estimates rose from August through final estimate in nearly every year with favorable conditions for corn during the critical period, Newman concluded.


Perhaps corn marketers should have pulled out that study and dusted it off before making estimates on what USDA would say last week!

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