Drought-tolerant corn looks promising in early returns

Source: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic • Posted: Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Yields look better than other seed this year, farmers say.

If it wasn’t an issue in the past, the term “drought tolerance” has taken on a whole new meaning in 2012.

Darren Hefty, co-owner of the Baltic-based Hefty Seed Co., said a strong market is developing for “drought-tolerant” seed varieties which will expand the range of corn, save water and be less stressed in dry conditions.

Agri-giant Monsanto had working test plots on many area farms for its genetically modified, drought-tolerant seeds, Hefty said, but no official results have been released to date.

Joe Schefers, area business manager for Monsanto’s DeKalb and Asgrow seed brands, said his company is evaluating the results from roughly 70 South Dakota test plots. Later this fall, Monsanto will announce which hybrid seed will receive the company’s DroughtGard label. The chosen seed will be available in the spring, Schefers said, but the extent of the available supply, and the price, are unknown at this time. On average, the new seeds will give 10 to 15 bushels more per acre, Schefers said.

Whether Monsanto’s corn will revolutionize the market and allow farmers to grow corn in poorer soil remains to be seen, Hefty said, but initial tests look good.

Early test results posted online show about an 8 percent yield increase in dry conditions for Pioneer’s Optimum AQUAmax hybrid.

Hefty believes the new drought-tolerant corn varieties produced higher yields than traditional varieties in these low-moisture conditions.

Did they work?

“The general observations from farmers are that yields looked considerably better,” Hefty said. “We’ll see what happens when the real test data comes out.”

The development of drought-tolerant varieties of seed corn is a fairly recent phenomenon, said Jeff Cleveland, agronomy manager/CHS Farmers Alliance. Cleveland said the seed varieties are being created to expand corn’s traditional range and to create larger crop yields.

This year however, the new seed varieties faced a stiffer test than expected.

“There were a bunch of test plots out there for both genetically modified and conventionally bred seed stock, but the results haven’t come back this year,” Cleveland said.

The seeds aren’t magic, he said. The same basic rules still apply.

“These seed varieties utilize moisture better than traditional seed,” Cleveland said, “but you still need rain to get a good crop.”

Cleveland believes more drought-tolerant seed stock will be sold next year. The seed will probably be priced according to moisture zones, with higher prices for drought-tolerant seed in drier western zones — which includes South Dakota.

Most dealers agree that prices will be going up for seed stock.

David Estabrook, who farms north of Mount Vernon, has a wait-and-see attitude on the drought-resistant varieties.

“They’re talking about it giving you another week or two of growth during dry weather — well, that wouldn’t have done much this summer,” Estabrook said.

He planted some corn in wheat stubble several weeks after his initial planting.

With only 0.75 inches of rain in the month of August, his late planting fared poorly, Estabrook said, and overall yields were about half of normal.

“And with it that dry, I don’t know that drought-tolerant corn would have done much better,” he said.

This year’s extreme conditions were too dry to get a really good check on the new corn varieties, said Ken Geraets, who with son Ryan sells Pioneer brand seed at Mitchell Seed Sales. Ken Geraets said the drought-tolerant seeds, while designed for drier conditions, also do very well in traditional high-yield or irrigated environments.

“Yields were extremely impressive, so you might say it’s not only a drought-tolerant corn, but it does well in areas with good ground and good water.”

Geraets said much of the feedback on this year’s harvest has been largely anecdotal.

Customer Jeff McEntee, who farms with his family southeast of Mitchell, said he planted several corn test plots this year and yields were noticeably higher on the drought-tolerant varieties. The seed was provided by Pioneer at no charge. Due to the extreme drought, the company chose not to harvest and weigh his small plot, McEntee said, but his personal observations showed the corn did well in the dry conditions.

“I didn’t do it scientifically,” McEntee said, “I just watched the field monitor on my combine as I went over the test plots. The drought-tolerant corn averaged about 75 bushels an acre, and the rest yielded in the 50s, so we got about 20 bushels more per acre with the drought-tolerant varieties.”

Those numbers are a disappointment for producers this year and record harvests in recent falls.

“I’m used to seeing soybean yields like this, not corn yields,” McEntee said.