Short Stature, High Expectations

Bayer short corn ( Brittany Bowman )

Tiny is a trend.  Tiny houses, smaller gadgets and minimalist styles.  One area you may not have considered? Corn.  It’s shrinking both in stature and acres needed for production.

Consider these pictures of a 1940s corn field versus one in the not-so-distant future.  In 1940, weed control was primarily manual and planting wasn’t precise—resulting in varied heights and plant spacing, says Bob Reiter, head of research and development for Bayer Crop Science.  Today, better weed control options, enhanced genetics and improved machinery result in higher-yielding, more uniform crops, Reiter explains.

Perhaps even more noticeable, however, is the height difference between these corn varieties. Bayer says the corn of the future will be short statured—measuring a couple of feet shorter than older genetics.

Short-stature corn, which reaches a maximum 7’ height, remains shorter than conventional corn throughout the growing season, Reiter says. Although it is currently being marketed for 30” rows, it could eventually transition to 20” rows.  

Short-stature corn features less space between internodes to keep corn lower to the ground, Reiter says. This reduces wind resistance amongst leaves and shifts the plant’s weight downward towards the base to reduce risk of root and stock lodging. It has a thicker stalk for an extra measure of protection against green snap, too. 

This short structure is contrast to regular corn hybrids that have more wind resistance.

“It’s probably a little bit like sailing,” Reiter says. “When the leaves are spread out, they capture a little bit more wind in the field [in regular height hybrids].” 

Short-stature corn with naturally bred traits has already been grown in Mexico, and Reiter says a GMO variety is set to hit American markets in the mid- to late-next decade.  The delay in GMO varieties’ introduction comes from more complex breeding and regulatory processes, explains Reiter.

“You have to have the right insect protection and weed control system in place [before marketing it to U.S. growers] because growers are really demanding to have those options in their products,” Reiter says. “That takes a little bit longer to introduce those traits and genetics.”

While improvements take time, Reiter says it is important to recognize how far the industry has come.  

At a demonstration plot in Jerseyville, Ill., Bayer researchers show the amount of land required to yield 10 bushels in 1940 compared to the acreage required for the same yield today and in the future. It’s staggering. Today’s corn takes about 1/8 less land to produce the same number of bushels—and the future of corn hybrids takes even less land.

Increased yield on less land is part of a more sustainable agriculture industry, Reiter says.

“If we focus on things like providing solutions that create sustainability, help with things like climate change, that make agriculture be perceived as a positive discussion around climate change and environmental impact, then I think we will land in a good place,” Reiter says.  “Crop protection tools are part of that because they are good tools for growers.” 


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