Some 10 years ago Dave Nanda dreamed of 400 to 500 bushel corn as the norm. At the time he was a plant breeder for Stewart Seeds at Greensburg. Today, he's a crops consultant, based in Indianapolis. But he hasn't changed his mind about the possibility for high yields in the future. In fact, he thinks the future is much closer now than when he first began calculating and designing what type of plant it would take to reach such high levels of corn production.
"That day doesn't seem too distant anymore," he says. "Yes, we will have to design different types of corn plants and different machines for planting and harvest. It's all an attempt to use a greater amount of sunlight than is currently being used."
In fact, Nanda believes sunlight and sunlight capture by plants is the driving force behind how much corn can be produced per acre. Sunlight is the catalyst that makes photosynthesis happen, turning carbon dioxide into starches and sugars. Without sunlight, chlorophyll within the plant don't activate, and the machinery in the factory can't get running at top speed. Think of sunlight as the energy source that drives the factory, he suggests.
Nanda believes breeders have already made progress in designing corn plants that capture more sunlight. It's no accident that many hybrids have upright laves, he notes. That is a trait that helps capture sunlight in cells within the leaves. At the same time, many of these hybrids allow lower leaves to receive more sunlight than plants bred 40 to 50 years ago did. Forty years ago, as recently as 1970, planting populations of 16,000 to 18,000 plants per acre weren't unheard of. Some farmers were still planting corn in 356 to 40-inch wide rows. It was a throwback to the days when farmers planted check-row corn so they could plow it with teams of horses going both directions. That preceded the days of effective herbicides that makes so much cultivation unnecessary.
Current hybrids are being planted at 30,000 to 40,000 seeds per acre in 30, 30, 15 inch and even twin row patterns, he notes. At least one farmer in southern Indiana wants to experiment with populations at or above 45,000 pants per acre this year. He's so dedicated to doing it that he and some neighbors invested in a used twin-row planter so they can try limited acreages of twin-row corn at varying populations.
Nanda still holds to his prediction made some 10 years ago that farmers are headed toward equidistant spacing in 10-inch rows. When that happens, populations could reach 60 to 70,000 plants per acre. While still at Stewarts's Seeds, he started evaluating inbreds in nurseries at those populations to find corn that could handle the stress once the production practices evolved.