Some 60 years ago, the great agronomist Dr. Norman Borlaug revolutionized food production by creating semi-dwarf wheat, a shorter and sturdier high-yielding plant that would save millions from hunger. By next year, another major food crop will be given short stature status, as Bayer begins rolling out a dwarf corn plant through a breeding approach for eventual planting on millions of acres.
The Bayer exhibit at the recent Farm Progress Show had 6-foot tall plants next to their traditional 9-foot plants so farmers could see for themselves what’s coming. Agronomists say the so-called Smart Corn System will “PAY” benefits: Protection against big wind and weather events, Access so that crops can benefit from timelier in-season fertilizer apps, and Yield, as shorter plants will pave the way for higher density populations yet have a similar ear and stalk structure compared to conventional plants.
“Because of the shorter stature you can be more confident you won’t have a lodging or green snap event occur,” says Ryan Tichich, Bayer corn agronomics systems lead.
At this point you may be unconvinced. But Bayer has been doing its homework for upwards of 10 years on Smart Corn to ensure a) yields are similar to tall corn, b) ears will be at least two feet above ground for easy harvest, and c) canopy closure will still snuff out weeds because the number of leaves and light interception is similar to tall corn.
More in-season apps
Growers will be able to manage the corn exactly as they do tall corn today, but these hybrids do open the door to manage things differently.
“One reason growers sometimes don’t do sidedress is they’re worried about weather. They have a narrow window to get out there with the toolbar,” says Tichich. “Our data says you would have an extra 7 to 10 days to make that early season side dress application. There’s also the door opening up for later applications of nitrogen or micronutrients during later vegetative or reproductive stages with standard application equipment.”
Standard ground sprayers may also help on yield-robbing tar spot or other foliar diseases. “With short stature corn they can bring standard ground sprayers through the crop throughout the full growing season,” says Tichich. “Aerial applicators today are stretched thin and fungicide applications aren’t made as timely as they could be. The two can work hand in hand to help growers better manage diseases.”
Ultimately Bayer’s goal is to be able to prescribe an ideal density (plant population) for a given soil type and environment. “We will provide that digital advice coupled with local knowledge from the grower and agronomist to position the whole system for success,” says Tichich.
Tichich believes the short stature corn could deliver big improvements to how corn is grown today.
“It’s a transformative tool,” he says enthusiastically. “It’s a tool that opens the door to apply more at planting and maybe more in season. How a grower does that is going to evolve over time. They will learn how late they can go with some in-season apps, and when do they add value. This tool unlocks that potential.”
Bayer expects to have Smart Corn on 50,000-60,000 acres across the Midwest in a ‘Groundbreakers’ program next year, with full scale launch in 2024.
Learn more about new ag technology in our New Tech Now series.