Drought-resistant corn faces real-life test

Sep 12, 2012

The sub-par corn harvest of 2012 is coming in early, after the worst growing conditions in more than 2 decades.

“We’ve been really dry all summer," farmer Bill Simmons says. "I talked to an older gentleman some time ago that said he had taken  47 crops off of his farm and this was about the worst that he’d ever seen it."

Simmons is combining 13-hundred acres of corn on the Clan Farm outside Atlantic, Iowa. Multiple varieties were planted, but one field turned out to be especially interesting: a 300-acre section devoted to AQUAmax, a new drought-resistant product from DuPont Pioneer.

“It’s doing really well for us all things considered," Simmons says. "What I’ve been in so far we’re running about 50 bushels better in the AQUAmax corn."

Simmons expects to plant more AQUAmax in 2013. Pioneer’s line-up was out first to be widely available; 2-million acres were planted across the Corn Belt this year. Major competitors are out with their own anti-drought varieties: Syngenta is wrapping up trials on 800 farms, and Monsanto’s Drought-Gard is being tested by 250 growers -- mostly in Kansas and Nebraska. While early signs are promising, experts say it is too soon to celebrate. Chad Hart is a grain marketing specialist at Iowa State University.

“I would say we do need to look at this fairly cautiously as we’re looking at the impact here," says Chad Hart, a grain marketing specialist at Iowa State University. "This is still a brand new technology.  Sometimes what we find is that to try something that works in the lab but we go into the field, conditions not the same, things look good so far, but the proof is in the yield at the end of the year.”

Pioneer has been studying drought-resilient corn since the 1950s. At its test farm in Johnston, Iowa, parent company DuPont has spent much of its billion dollar research budget developing the new hybrids. The company says drought-fighting traits in AQUAmax are native to corn and are not genetically modified. Pioneer agronomist Greg Luce says advances in gene mapping made it possible.

“We now can map the corn plant and we can identify genes that have a positive influence on corn under drought," he says. "And so what we do is pre-select hybrid lines that will contain this set of genes that are positive for their effects on drought.”

There’s a lot at stake in this new hi-bred revolution from global warming implications to feeding the world.

“When you look back over the past 60 years, here in Iowa looking at corn and soybeans, nearly half the time the reason we lose a crop is because of drought or very dry conditions," Hart says. "So if we can breed the crop to be tolerant of those conditions to still maintain that yield it is a game changer then, if we can pull it off.”

Todd Frazier, Pioneer's business director, expects its new designer corn we be a key option as farmers wonder if the dry weather pattern might extend into another growing season.

“We’re getting very good feedback on AQUAmax hybrids this year," he says. "The future of AQUAmax is definitely expansion. We’ll see a significant increase next year and we’ve just launched AQUAmax in Europe as well.”

Frazier cautions that these new drought-busting varieties still need water—they’re not a cactus. Bill Northey, Iowa's secretary of agriculture, says this year’s drought has been the best test possible for the newly-engineered seed corn.

“All farmers are interested in it, obviously after this year we’re really interested in it," he says, "but it still has to be in its right place. We don’t expect a drought every year. We do expect some period of dry weather, and at the end of the day it’s going to be how does it yield compared to other crops.”

As summer winds down on the most widespread drought in more than half a century, the verdict on drought-resistant technology is in the harvest. If yield predictions perform as advertised, the agriculture secretary says it could boost planting acreage by turning forgotten, drought-prone land into productive cornfields.

This story originally aired as part of Business Beat, a weekly program about business and economics in mid-Missouri.