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Panorama of Genetics Will Display Breeding Progress

Nine hybrids of past 80 years planted side by side.

How much would you pay to see Wilt Chamberlain go against Shaq, both in their prime? Or maybe you would like to see Peyton Manning and Johnny Unitas meet head to head? Obviously, that's not possible, since some of the great sports heroes of the past are no longer alive.

With corn, however, it's a different story. There are still supplies of past great hybrids available today. Recently, Beck's Hybrids agreed to provide genetics form nine past great hybrids so we could include them in the Corn Illustrated plots this year. These hybrids are planted in two-row plots, with each row representing 1/1000th of an acre.

One year ago the same thing was tried on small plots just for demonstration purposes, but only with three hybrids. There were big differences in emergence, especially after the infamous May 7 rain in '06 that led to 10 days of cool, wet weather. The latest genetics were far superior in emergence. But those plots weren't in a place where they could be carried to yield.

This year the intent is to follow emergence and make stand counts early in the season, then monitor the plots as plants grow and reproduce. If all goes well, two replications of these plots, with nine hybrids in each replication, will be made this fall.

The result, plant breeders suggest, should be an illustration of the line they can graph for hybrid yield performance over the past 75 years. The curve gets much steeper over the past two decades. The only difference here is that all hybrids, even those from the past, have the advantage of weed control and fertilization of today. Some of those techniques weren't available when those hybrids were in their prime.

One of the hybrids in the plot, U.S. 13, was a favorite back in the early days of hybrid corn. Others include parentage from several major university corn breeding programs. Most of the Land Grant colleges had important corn breeding programs at one time. Even some of the lines still used as inbreds to make hybrids today trace their roots back to university breeding programs.

Funding for many of those efforts tailed off, and in some cases dried up completely, as university administrators opted to support high-tech research efforts in the '80s and '90s. With federal funding for research stagnating at the same period, administrators were often forced to make tough choices between continuing traditional programs or rolling the dice and giving the nod to new technologies with little proven track record, but with great promise for the future.

Some university corn breeding programs still function. Today, some of the leading seed and chemical companies realize that university programs are still important. Today the value is as much, if not more so, in training the young scientists and breeders who they will hire next, as compared to the actual breeding lines that are produced through corn breeding efforts at these universities.

Stay tuned for interesting comparisons as we bring the past to life in the corn field this season in central Indiana.

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