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By Sam Eathington, Chief Science Officer, The Climate Corporation and Mike Graham, Head of Plant Breeding, Crop Science division of Bayer
There’s universal demand for farm progress. Operations need to preserve and maximize profits today and be ready to produce and deliver more food tomorrow. Global trends point to a 50 percent increase in global food demand in the next 30 years. At the same time, there’s an increasing awareness of and interest in better managing the environmental footprint of farming and continued preservation of natural resources.
Inspired by the revelatory work of breeder and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr. Norman Borlaug, we’ve been hard at work developing a shorter corn plant adapted to be more climate resilient, enable better in-season field access, and ultimately carry a lighter footprint - both literally in a shorter stature and in terms of environmental impact.
Advancing Agriculture Through Data
With the adoption of digital and precision farming tools over the past decade, we’re seeing the first in a new wave of ag innovations. Access to real-time, on-farm data opens the door for more intelligent and sophisticated agronomic management and cropping system design. With a digital operating system in farming, opportunities explode for advanced “apps” to manage crop placement, seed selection, and a host of other agronomic considerations.
Digital tools let us characterize our fields and identify variation in granular detail. This is the core of digital farming. With a digital record of elevation, soil types, water holes, and much more, we can rely on software tools to run hundreds - even thousands - of models to identify tailored solutions best suited for every part of the field. This unprecedented access to look “under the hood” of farming is driving some really interesting innovations.
Digging in to Agriculture’s Source Code
Take historical corn yield in the US. In general, yield has improved by planting more plants per acre with improved agronomic tools. Average planting populations for corn have doubled since the 1960’s. And with denser fields have come thinner corn stalks. Still greatly preferred to the field of the 1960’s with 55-85 bushels per acre, but also with a 25 percent risk of both root and stalk lodging1,2
We’ve also learned in recent years through the adoption of digital farming tools that crops can benefit from on-demand management of fertility, crop protection, and even cover crop seeding applications. But timely applications are often limited once the corn outgrows the sprayer boom. Additionally, timing aerial applications can be limited and costly. And with in-season crop management insights now easily available through digital farming tools, the guidebook is there and waiting for a more compatible crop.
Short Stature Corn Could Offer Big Gains
To make it happen, we built a breeding selection system for short stature corn plants, in addition to exploring other technology approaches including biotech. Pulling in diverse germplasm and finding the genetic markers that influenced plant height – and many other needed traits – our approach is driven by advanced data and analytics. Still in research and development, this short stature corn product concept is yielding well and does, in fact, open up the possibility for in-field equipment access throughout the season.
By taking digital farming data all the way back to seed development, we’re working to unlock the potential for a higher efficiency cropping system in corn. In addition to the precision crop management upside, this shorter corn plant is also aimed at risk mitigation with reduced susceptibility to lodging and greensnap.
Stepping back and looking at the big picture, we estimate products like this could one day be on well over a hundred million acres in the Americas alone. We have a few years of field testing ahead, but we expect this corn to use less resources per unit of yield and help incrementally reduce farming’s environmental footprint.
Would a short stature corn product be useful without integrated digital farming insights? Probably so – it’s been done successfully in sorghum, rice, and wheat. In this case, digital farming has acted as a significant catalyst, empowering farm-scale research for early-stage seed genomics. This is the power of digitally integrated research and development.
Why Mission-Driven Innovation Matters
The world is hungry for 21st-century innovation that delivers food security through more efficient and sustainable methods. It’s up to us working in agriculture and food production to stretch our limits, challenge convention, and discover solutions that can make a meaningful difference. The story of short stature corn and an integrated approach to innovation is just one example of how we can solve problems together holistically, and with bigger goals in mind.
It’s this type of thinking, driven increasingly by a new generation of leaders in technology, ag science, and agronomy, that could make a positive impact on the strength of our farming operations, the potential of our food production systems, and the preservation of natural resources for our planet.
- Root lodging in corn, University of Wisconsin, http://www.channel.com/agronomics/Documents/AgronomicContentPDF/CornRootLodging_Channel_Advice.pdf
- Stalk lodging in corn, Purdue University, https://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/ay/ay-262.html