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Corn Yield Trending Higher
by Jonathan Eisenthal

Five hundred and eighty-eight percent.

That’s how much more grain per acre U.S. corn farmers produce now than they did 80 years ago. Experts, both private company representatives and government officials, believe that yields could double again by mid-century.

These predictions aren’t pie-in-the-sky optimism or even a blind confidence in the continuation of a long trend – we are at the front end of fundamental improvements in the corn plant.

It’s the adaptability of the corn plant that has made it an agricultural success story. Beginning with its roots as a wild grass-like species in Mexico up to genetically engineered plants today, this path reflects the ability of the corn plant to change in ways that enable success. Our ability to manage that change, and to accelerate the pace of that change, suggests the upward trend in corn yield has just begun.

To say that corn has reached a physical limit in yield seems to be as plausible as saying we have reached the end of medical innovation or maximized the utility of computers.

The coming changes to corn will be wrought through computer modeling of hybrid traits, and through transgenic modification of the corn gene to enhance properties like the ability to use water or nutrients more efficiently, the ability to grow more plants per acre, and the ability to withstand weeds, pests, and disease. Each of the top three seed companies in the U.S. has hybrids approaching regulatory approval that offer one or more of these traits. Farmers are eagerly awaiting the releases of several innovative corn technologies this year, and throughout the decade.

From 1930 to 2009 – an astonishing trend line

Nobody states the facts of corn’s incredible rise in productivity better than the Corn Farmers’ Coalition (www.cornfarmerscoalition.org), a group formed in 2008 by National Corn Growers Association and ten state-level corn organizations, to help ensure that factual information about agricultural production reached the eyes and ears of U.S. policymakers and the general public.

The Coalition says this about the U.S. corn supply:

“ Farmers today grow five times as much corn as they did in the 1930s – on 20 percent less land . That is 13 million acres or 20,000 square miles, twice the size of Massachusetts. The yield per acre has skyrocketed from 24 bushels in 1931 to 154 now, or a six-fold gain. And the Agriculture Department expects the average yield per acre to double in the next 25 years.”

The latest estimates of the 2009 corn crop put it at a record-setting national yield of 165 bushels per acre. That’s 588 percent higher than the 1930s average. Weather, say the experts, still leads to year-to-year variability. What’s assured is that the explosion of knowledge, technology, and intellectual property surrounding corn production mean that each year the weather has less bite when it comes to limiting corn yield.

The view from the combine

Steve Ebke is a corn producer in central Nebraska and currently serves as chairman of the Production and Stewardship Action Team of National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), a team that closely monitors developments that affect the productivity of corn or its impact on the environment. He reports that as productivity increases, environmental footprint shrinks – and that’s no accident. Corn genetics have allowed many more farmers to adopt some form of conservation tillage, which helps to retain and concentrate nutrients so the corn plants can make better use of them.

“We look at company claims of potential doubling of corn yields – of course no one knows for sure if that will happen,” Ebke said. “But based on the past, we think the yield increases will continue, and in the last few years the trend line has gotten steeper. We have seen significant gains using the genetic markers. Our (NCGA) corn yield contest averages show that.”

Every year, thousands of farmers enter the NCGA Corn Yield Contest. From 1996 to 2000, the average yield of all the entrants was 191 bushels per acre. By comparison, the national average yield for all corn farmers during that time frame was 131.78 bushels per acre. Clearly the contest represents the intersection of ideal growing conditions and excellent management. Moving ahead to the years 2001-2005, the average the NCGA corn yield contest average rose to 210 bushels per acre, a 17 percent increase over the previous half-decade. The average national yield in that period increased to 143.6 bushels per acre, 8 percent higher yield than the previous half-decade.

Both the most productive farms and the total picture of all corn farms reflect an ongoing trend of increased yield. Yield contest information isn’t just an indication of where yields can go, but serves as an active agent to increase national productivity. The information generated by the contest is offered to the public, free for any farmer to implement in his own operation. Most state corn organizations offer some kind of show plot program. The Minnesota Corn Growers Association offers a most forward-thinking approach, and one bound to be adopted by all these organizations – an online database that allows the farmer to generate reports about how various hybrid traits performed in what type of soil, with what inputs, and so forth.

“Industry figures show yield increases are accelerating,” Ebke said. “Hybrids that can withstand a drier climate or a little more drought stress mean that crops that would have been a disaster in the past – well, they might not be record breakers, but they’ll result in a decent crop. Our hybrids today are much more tolerant of weather variations than when I started farming in 1986.”

The average national corn yield in 1986 was 119.4 bushels. The 2009 crop’s 165.2 bushels per acre means an increase of more than 45 bushels an acre (a 38 percent increase in that 24 year period). Not only that, but the record size of this year’s crop – 13.2 billion bushels (compared to 8.2 billion bushels in 1986) – in combination with the vast expansion of uses for corn has raised the total value of the crop from 12.5 billion in 1986 to an estimated 48.8 billion this year. It’s no coincidence that the technology and intellectual property surrounding corn production have delivered increasing productivity. The capital needed to push the envelope gravitates to that kind of success.

Looking back at the growth from hundred bushel yields as recently as 1978 to today’s numbers, Pioneer Hi-Bred representative Jerry Harrington credits a whole package of changes in corn breeding and production practices, each adding incrementally to this marvel of increased productivity and efficiency.

“Part of (the yield trend) is genetics, part of it is enhanced weed control, better agronomic traits, introduction of transgenic traits, better understanding of seed placement,” Harrington said. “One of the major factors is the ability of farmers to plant higher numbers of seeds per acre—through both enhanced planting equipment and genetic changes, the plants can be placed closer together without a negative impact on the yield of each plant. It depends on what part of the country you’re farming in, but in the middle of the Corn Belt, you can typically get up into the higher 30,000s plants per acre – a huge leap from what has been possible in the past.”

Ambitious plans from seed providers

When Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont business, announced its goal in 2008 to increase both corn and soybean yields by 40 percent within ten years, the company set the yield performance bar quite high for the industry.

“By looking at corn at the molecular level, the industry is able to speed up this yield increase trend,” said Pioneer’s Harrington. “Pioneer is able to analyze inbreds prior to field testing to find out which plants have the targeted traits we want. Transgenic hybrids can increase water use efficiency or drought tolerance, and nitrogen use efficiency... but it’s not enough to just develop the varieties. Our folks in the field work with the farmer to make sure the right seed gets planted in the right acre.”

Another leading seed provider, Syngenta, agrees that the corn yield trend line is accelerating, and they aim to contribute to the trend through their product line.

“In the past, look at what corn breeding has given us – about 1.5 percent yield growth per year in the ‘90s and onward,” said David Witherspoon, head of the Renewable Fuels Group for Syngenta. “We think we can take that to 2.5 percent and beyond through breeding.”

He said a number of traits in the company’s pipeline will contribute to this increase by helping growers better manage the insect, weather, and weed challenges they have.

Monsanto has set a goal of doubling corn yield by 2030, while at the same time reducing nutrient, pesticide, and herbicide inputs by one-third per unit of output.

Michael D. Edgerton, a plant biologist at Monsanto, conducted a review of scientific literature and Monsanto research and concluded that average corn yield could reach well over 20-plus metric tonnes per hectare by 2030 – the equivalent of approximately 320 bushels per acre. Farmers would accomplish this through a combination of four factors: improved agronomics, improved conventional breeding, genetic marker-assisted breeding, and biotechnology traits. The last two factors will fuel explosive growth, nearly doubling today’s yields all by themselves, according to Edgerton.

To put the trend line into perspective with real-world demand figures, the latest estimate of the World Agricultural Outlook Board states the U.S. ethanol industry could process a gross 4.2 billion bushels of grain to produce almost 12 billion gallons of ethanol this year. Of course, nearly a third of that volume of grain comes out of the fermentation process and becomes the high-protein feed product called distillers grains. Including the distillers grains in the calculation would make the actual net use of corn for ethanol 2.925 billion bushels. Animal nutritionists and Argonne National Labs would argue an even greater offset of soy and corn acres if the correct nutrient offset is made.

The Renewable Fuel Standard sets a cap for corn ethanol production at 15 billion gallons five years from now. That means less than a billion bushels of net corn will be needed to bridge the gap between current ethanol corn consumption and what the industry will need in 2015.

Can the farmers handle it? Take the 13.2 billion bushel crop in 2009 and increase it 2.5 percent for each of the next five years, and production would grow by 1.7 billion bushels. That amply covers the increasing ethanol demand, and it does so without cultivating any additional corn acres. And plenty of corn is left to grow other uses.

“The yields we are repeatedly seeing in the field have us confident that the trend line for yield has once again changed,” said Martha Schlicher, who leads the bioenergy team for Monsanto. “The improvements in germplasm, the ability to get that germplasm to market more quickly, and the insurance (against crop failure) that the combination of genetics and traits has provided have all driven yield upward.”

When it comes to biotechnology, it’s not just what’s in the seed that will help boost yield, but also what surrounds it, according to Wayne Fithian, business lead product manager for Syngenta.

“Syngenta is unique in having a seed care business,” Fithian said. “We can look at protecting yield through seed coatings, in addition to our seed and crop protection products.”

Such coatings might assure that seed can withstand longer periods of cool soil temperatures and moisture pre-germination, and better withstand pests and diseases to allow more seed to become corn plants. Syngenta has Avicta Complete Corn, the first integrated product offering to control the whole spectrum of soil nematodes.

Corn might be called maize in other parts of the world, but many producers in South America and Asia particularly are having great success producing this grain, and Monsanto is in a position to harness that success, according to Schlicher.

“We are now accessing germ plasm from around the world – Iowa corn farmers may find themselves benefitting from Brazilian or Argentine germ plasm,” Schlicher said. “Our ability to conduct trials around the world (so that there is no off-season) has helped to speed up the process of developing new traits, new varieties. We are also able to fingerprint the corn – find out which genetic markers make plants from different regions unique. That has helped us improve how we pick what to test and develop further.”

Schlicher says these traits can’t control all the risks inherent in raising crops.

“Crop production has environmental aspects that are beyond all of our control, but what we have demonstrated is that our ability to mitigate the impact of weather improves with every trait we can introduce ,” Schlicher said. “Drought tolerance will help corn acres that would suffer from lack of rainfall. They could weather better and yield higher. These traits benefit the worst conditions the most.”

Keeping pace with its competitors, Syngenta expects to have water-optimized corn hybrids available in 2011 that deliver approximately 25 percent more yield under drought stress conditions . In addition, Syngenta’s latest corn trait, Agrisure Viptera, continues to progress through the final steps of the U.S. regulatory and key export market approval systems. The trait already has approvals in Brazil and Mexico and Syngenta will provide growers across the Corn Belt an opportunity to see the Agrisure Viptera trait in action at strategic trialing locations in 2010.

“We are hoping to have Agrisure Viptera trait stacks available for spring planting because it protects corn from the ‘’multi-pest complex” – including European corn borer, corn earworm, Western bean cutworm, black cutworm and fall armyworm — and will be stacked with traits that control of corn rootworm and for glyphosate and glufosinate herbicide tolerance.”

It will be the only trait available that uses a new mode of action and enables a new level of control with pests like corn earworm, according to Syngenta.

Monsanto has released another technology the company calls a “game-changer” – Genuity ™ SmartStax corn is available this spring. Corn Belt farmers who use Genuity™ SmartStax are able to plant a five percent refuge, as opposed to the traditional 20 percent refuge required in the Corn Belt. The new corn seed combines the industry’s leading traits for above- and below-ground insect protection and herbicide tolerant traits for the most yield protection available to growers.

Pioneer Hi-Bred’s water use efficiency corn varieties will be introduced this decade, Harrington noted.

“We have the Drought I initiative, which will be available soon and takes advantage of a native corn gene,” Harrington said. “Drought I will be particularly useful in the western part of the Corn Belt. Where growers have water challenges, this trait will make more efficient use of moisture. We also are working on Drought II, a transgenic trait, and that will be introduced over next decade. We are also at work on a transgenic trait for Nitrogen efficiency that we hope to introduce later this decade.”

With both the increasing cost of fossil energy-based nitrogen fertilizer and the worry about its impact on the ocean’s hypoxic zones, a product that makes nitrogen use more efficient will generate a lot of customer interest from farmers.

Not only will the Earth be home to nine billion people by mid-century, but as many as a third of them will be middle class in terms of wealth, income, and the expectations that come along with these, according to world population experts.

This will drive a huge demand for protein, which translates to growing demand for corn-for-feed. It will also mean millions (tens of millions?) more vehicles. To have a reasonably breathable atmosphere, the globe’s industrial powers will rely on a combination of biofuels and clean electric sources to power them. Here again, we see a growing demand for grain products. And the world will want this, and will want to have it while reducing the environmental impact of agriculture. These pressures will assure a very lucrative reward to seed companies that develop technologies to answer these demands. With these kinds of incentives in place, the drive for increasing yield is bound to continue to grow.

© American Coalition for Ethanol, all rights reserved.
The American Coalition for Ethanol publishes Ethanol Today magazine each month to cover the biofuels industryís hot topics, including cellulosic ethanol, E85, corn ethanol, food versus fuel, ethanolís carbon footprint, E10, E15, and mid-range ethanol blends.
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