7.10.2009 | printed in the Summer 2009 issue of VITAL magazine
In this, the first of a three-part series of stories, Vital looks at what is being done in the research lab and on the farm to boost corn yields. The second part of the series will focus on environmental improvements in the planting, harvesting, fertilizing and other agronomic aspects of raising corn. The third will describe new uses of corn that are being developed.
Seed companies are delivering the latest varieties of transgenic seeds to farmers. Farmers, in turn, are taking those seeds and using improved agronomic techniques to boost corn yields on the farm. Multinational seed businesses Pioneer Hi-Bred, Monsanto and Syngenta are all working in the lab and in test plots around the world to develop seeds that can increase the gallons of ethanol produced from an acre of corn, resist pests, use water and nitrogen more efficiently and tolerate glyphosphate herbicides.
Collectively, the three companies control about three-quarters of the world’s seed corn market.
Future increases in corn harvests across the globe, experts say, will feed an increasingly hungry world. In fact, corn production promises to grow so fast that new uses for corn are going to need to be found to keep up with future corn supplies.
Russ Sanders, End-use Marketing Director for Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont business headquartered in Johnston, Iowa, said growing global demand for corn has been a gamechanger, turning the international corn business from a supply-burdened market into one that is demand-driven.
“We’re very optimistic about our ability to make significant progress in accelerating our rate of genetic gain,” Sanders says. “Pioneer’s goal in the next 10 years is to increase corn yield 40 percent, to more than 210 bushels-an-acre average in the U.S.”
Writing in the January 2009 issue of Plant Physiology, Michael Edgerton, ethanol and quality traits technical lead of Monsanto in St. Louis, Mo., says corn yields can double over the next two decades in the U.S. by using a combination of molecular marker-assisted breeding techniques, biotechnology-based traits and continuing progress in using better agronomic practices on the farm.
“To satisfy the growing worldwide demand for grain, two broad options are available,” Edgerton says. The first option, he says, is adding new lands that haven’t been farmed. The second is increasing productivity on land already in production.
“These two options are not mutually exclusive and both will be employed to produce the additional corn estimated to be needed by 2017,” Edgerton says. But, he adds, increasing productivity on existing agricultural land is preferable because it’s more environmentally benign.
U.S. average corn yields have increased almost six times from the first three decades of the 20th century to today, Edgerton says, because of the development and widespread use of hybrid corn, synthetic fertilizers and farm machinery.
“The introduction of biotechnology traits and development of new breeding methodology using DNA-based markers are further improving yields,” he says. “Outside the United States, similar farming practices have been adopted in some agricultural nations, but in many major grain-producing countries, yields still lag well behind world averages. By continuing to develop new farming technologies and deploying them on a global basis, demand for feed, fuel, and food can be met without the commitment of large land areas to new production.”
MOST PRODUCTION POTENTIAL IS OUTSIDE U.S.
The biggest potential for increasing corn production lies not in the U.S. or Canada, where corn yields are almost double the global average, Edgerton says, but in countries where corn yields lag the rest of the world.
“Much of the disparity in yields (between high- and low-production countries) can be ascribed to agronomic practices, such as the use of open pollinated corn varieties instead of hybrids, low input rates, or poor soil management,” he says. “Weather is also a significant factor in some countries, but the use of less robust production systems can magnify the effects of unfavorable weather in countries such as South Africa and Romania.”
POET PREDICTS MORE CORN PRODUCTION
Craig Ludtke, President of POET Risk Management in Albert Lea, Minn., says corn yields in the U.S. have risen about two bushels-an-acre per year for the past 30 years.
“For the past five years, we’ve been increasing corn yields by three bushels-an-acre thanks to triple-stacked hybrids that are more drought-tolerant, more resistant to pests and dry down faster,” Ludtke says. “In the next 10 years, we are going to be in a yield revolution we’ve never seen the likes of.” New crop technologies will evolve faster than is thought, Ludtke says, especially in China and Brazil, where there is great potential for producing more corn.
For example, Ludtke says, China currently harvests 72.7 million acres of corn with an average yield of 89 bushels-an-acre. That’s 73 percent less, or 65 bushels-an-acre less, than the U.S. average corn yield of 154 bushels an acre in 2008.
China’s main roadblocks to higher yields are its small size of farms, the lack of mechanized equipment, a lack of storage space, problems in its transportation infrastructure, lack of adequate fertilizer supplies and limited access to the latest seed hybrids, he says.
As China increases its equipment mechanization, improves fertilizer application and gains access to the latest corn seed hybrids, Ludtke says, the Chinese will have the largest potential yield improvement in the world.
Last year alone, he says Chinese farmers boosted their corn yield 6.5 bushels per acre from the prior 4 year average, 44 percent more than the U.S. increase of 4.5 bushels per acre as compared over the same period.
“China will naturally benefit from access to the new seed corn technologies, even if they are slightly behind in the seed hybrids they are using compared to the U.S.,” Ludtke says. “China could easily see a 20 to 25 bushel-an-acre increase in corn production in the next five to seven years. … No new land is going to be needed to be brought into production if we get the acceleration in yield that I think we will. We run the risk that yields will rise faster than people’s vision. We will need more uses for our increased yields.”
Rick Tolman, Chief Executive Officer of the National Corn Growers Association, says that more ethanol processing and other corn-based uses of corn are going to be needed so that the coming increases in corn production don’t become a price-depressing burden.
“Unless we have growing ethanol production, you can’t use all the corn that will be produced by farmers in the future and you’ll have a depressing influence on price,” Tolman says. “We need a growing demand base to keep the incentives in place for farmers to grow more corn. Livestock producers are still our most important customers and exports are important, too, but the only growth piece we have is ethanol to keep up with that increased productivity.”
SYNGENTA’S PIPELINE OF PRODUCTS
Wayne Fithian, Syngenta’s business lead product manager for corn and soybeans, said Syngenta’s corn product pipeline is filled with new and emerging technologies that will enter the marketplace in the next several years.
One new Syngenta technology Fithian cites is Agrisure® VipteraTM. Syngenta plans to make the technology commercially available, once all regulatory approvals are completed, for spring planting in 2010.
“It’s a new mode of action designed to offer additional control of multiple insect pests of corn, including corn ear worm and fall army worm, two insect pests of corn that are now only partially controlled by Bt (a microbial insecticide),” Fithian says. Annual losses from the pests can range from 4-8 percent in any given year, he says.
Syngenta also is breeding “water optimization” genetics into corn, with some transgenic traits coming from other sources and some from native genes already found in corn. Water optimization allows corn plants to maintain yield when water is limited by drought, or by helping irrigated farmland produce the same corn yield with less water.
“We think it can stretch the area where you can profitably raise corn,” Fithian says.
Syngenta also is working on nitrogen efficiency traits that allow corn to yield the same with less nitrogen, he says.
CORN AMYLASE FOR ETHANOL PLANTS
David Witherspoon, Syngenta’s head of renewable fuels for North America, said the company’s corn amylase technology will help boost the efficiency of ethanol production.
“The product works on a pretty broad range to keep ethanol plants as efficient as possible,” he says.
Witherspoon says the company hopes to have its corn amylase technology available for the 2010 planting season. Extensive field tests have shown no negative affects on yield, he says.
“Yield is the ultimate value for farmers,” Witherspoon says. “You’ve got to keep the yields high. We’ll keep increasing yields at a faster rate than we have in the past and that should help with the issue of producing enough feed, food and fuel. And that’s a very real issue.”
PIONEER’S CORN LAUNDRY LIST
Pioneer Hi-Bred is working on a long laundry list of traits that can lessen stress and improve the corn plant’s ability to feed itself, Pioneer’s Sanders says. Corn can reach its maximum yield potential when stresses like drought, insect and weed pressure and herbicide damage are mitigated and the corn plant is fertilized to its optimal level, he says.
Pioneer is looking at expanded insect resistance, additional herbicide tolerance, improved nitrogen utilization, better water utilization, frost protection for corn in northern climates where little corn is grown today and boosting seedling vigor in cool, wet soils.
In addition, Pioneer is working to change the compositional value of corn by increasing the kernel’s starch content, resulting in an increase in the amount of ethanol that can be produced per acre, Sanders says.
“In addition to producing more bushels per acre, we want to produce more value for the bushels we have,” he says.
MONSANTO READIES CORN FOR COMMERCIALIZATION
Monsanto Co. says it is spending more than $2 million a day on research to support both the agronomic and the value-added needs of its customers.
Monsanto recently announced that its drought-tolerant corn line has moved into the final phase before commercialization.
Also in the last phase before commercialization is Monsanto’s Genuity SmartStax corn, “the first, most durable and highest-yielding package for total weed and bug control in corn,” the company says.
Monsanto said it plans to commercially launch the product in 2010, pending regulatory approval.
FARMERS SEE YIELD GAINS
The best seeds in the world won’t improve yields if farmers can’t turn better seed genetics into more corn in the field.
Julius Schaaf, who farms near Randolph in southwest Iowa, has seen corn yields soar during his farming career.
“When I started farming 30 years ago, an average corn yield of 130 bushels-an-acre was common. Now, in southwestern Iowa, 200 bushels-an-acre field averages are common. The best whole field average that I ever raised was 225 bushels-an-acre,” he recalls. “Recent advancements in genetics will move these numbers much higher. Seed providers are saying we will see a 300-bushel-an-acre national average corn yield by 2030.”
Schaaf credits higher plant population density as one of the reasons for higher corn yields, made possible by transgenic corn varieties that allow the plant to defend itself from insect damage in a natural, environmentally-friendly way.
“The plants can withstand environmental stresses that would have pulled yield lower in past years,” he says. “Advances are coming in less water demand and better nitrogen efficiency by corn plants. In this case, fewer inputs mean more corn. This should be music to consumers’ ears.”
With the added corn production and imminent surpluses, Schaaf says, ethanol made from corn should help the U.S. become energy independent from foreign oil sources.
“Advancements in corn-based biofuels can be part of a longterm, clean, renewable answer to U.S. domestic fuel security,” he says. “People should take the time to learn the facts about modern corn production and realize the sustainability that is possible.”
Gary Edwards, who farms near Anamosa in eastern Iowa, says more and better seeds are on their way to the farm.
“I believe we are just in the infancy of genetic biotechnology plant breeding and in the next 10 years we are going to see advances that make today’s yield look as low as yields were 30 years ago,” Edwards says. “The ultimate yield of corn is somewhere between 450 and 500 bushels-an-acre and, as we unlock the functionality of the corn genome, potential yields near those levels will be routinely obtained. The real key is to insure there is enough usage for the corn we produce. This means that as yields go up, we will have to increase the usage in biofuels, livestock or other uses. If not, we will have stockpiles of corn worth little to nothing and there will be no incentive to obtain the extra yield. Our economy is driven by profit. Plant breeders, farmers, and end users all work for a profit and, if there is a potential for profit, the industry will quickly adapt new technologies.”
By Jerry Perkins