On The Corn-Yield Fast Track

January 19, 2009 08:31 AM

If you were floored when world-record corn yields zoomed past 400 bu./acre, your socks are about to be knocked off again, or so some plant breeders say.

Now they're talking more than records, more than gee-whiz bragging rights or yield champions with rock-star status. Their new genetics, they say, will make 400-plus-bu./acre yields commonplace on well-managed, fertile fields with adequate moisture.

Not only that, they also predict average corn yields will reach 300 bu./acre by 2030, roughly double today's number. That's two decades—a flash in time in plant-breeding terms. Consider this: The national corn yield trendline only passed the 100 bu./acre mark in 1982. Twenty years ago, in 1988, it sat at about 110 bu./acre. To double today's mark of just over 150 bu./acre in 22 years sounds incredible.

Amazingly, many plant breeders believe it won't even take that long. Seed companies now access germplasm from around the world, and DNA is used to tag traits breeders most value. The corn genome is sequenced, speeding efforts to target specific genes. Taken together, plant breeding is a brand-new, fast-moving game.

"The way we're breeding crops today is completely different from five years ago," says Robert Fraley, Monsanto Company's chief technology officer. For Fraley's company to reach its stated 300 bu./acre national average corn yield by 2030, yields must run far higher on highly productive soils like those of central Iowa.

Agronomic changes. Ted Crosbie, Monsanto's vice president of global plant breeding, thinks a combination of exceptional germplasm, genetic traits for things like drought tolerance and nitrogen efficiency, and remarkable plant population densities could speed the jump.

Scientists at Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. agree we're entering an unprecedented era. "We're saying we can increase corn and soybean yields at least 40% over the next decade. With the tools we have now, we can do it," says Paul Carter, Pioneer's senior agronomy sciences manager.

To reach double corn yields could mean doubling plant populations. "We'll see 60,000 plants per acre, absolutely, by 2030," says Mike Kavanaugh, AgriGold's agronomy manager.

"I don't see the technology stopping. It's unbelievable now what goes on in some of the labs. In another 10 years we'll have drought-tolerant and nitrogen-efficient hybrids, and this will significantly increase yields in the more marginal production areas," Kavanaugh says.

Three-hundred-bushel yields are already common in small plots on productive Corn Belt soils, says Ken Ferrie, Farm Journal field agronomist. Getting those yields in more marginal areas will take a lot of grower education in addition to new genetic traits. Pushing plant population higher will also require souped-up genes since many fields are already at or near yield limits with current genetics.

Doubling the yield means about 12 billion additional bushels have to go through the system at 2007 acreage. Just to get the corn out of the field and into bins will require about 10 million more trips with average-sized hopper-bottom trailers. With those numbers, it'll take 240,000 more 50,000-bu. bins to store it. Then, the deteriorating transportation system becomes a factor.

Infrastructure demands. As yields increase, the logistics will pressure the industry in more ways than a push to redesign corn heads and planters, says Don Borgman, Deere & Co.'s director of ag industry relations. The impact is also far beyond horsepower, he says.

"If average yields increase 20% to 40% over the next 10 years, the big thing will be logistics. How many more semi trucks will that require? How much more taxing will it be on the grain carts? How about augers and bins? That's the biggest challenge out there," Borgman says.

From their standpoint, machinery manufacturers are looking closely at tillage equipment. "Let's say a chisel plow is designed for 160-bu. residue but it's out there working its way through 30% to 40% more residue. That could be a problem," he says.
If cellulosic ethanol becomes a reality and a market develops for stalks and cobs, the increased truck traffic to haul them could further pressure roads and bridges.

"If you're hauling hundreds of millions of tons of residue off fields, you've got to expect that to increase truck traffic," Borgman says. "If we keep on track to produce 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels a year, that will challenge us, whether it's made from grain or switchgrass.

"We have to prepare to haul and handle more stuff. We're probably going to stretch those boundaries going forward. If you look fairly near-term, USDA trendline data project 180-bu. average yields by 2015—that's a 20% increase in eight years. Forty percent is not unthinkable.

"If you look to the trendline, that's probably close to accurate when you talk about stacking genes and providing nitrogen and water efficiency," Borgman says. "That'll be 20% more truck traffic in the Midwest. What's that going to do to the infrastructure? We need to make sure ag has a voice in this and make a point to have good infrastructure in place."

Obama's moves. "A key question is, what programs will the Obama administration create or expand with respect to ethanol?" says Ken Eriksen, Informa Economics' senior vice president for transportation.

If ethanol figures into the future, much of the additional corn will be used in plants near where it is grown. That places the transportation burden on local and state governments.

"We'll see more local trucks moving to fulfill local markets. If we look at what corn production will be, where it grows over time, it'll be where the ethanol plants are located," Eriksen says. "We may see more corn stay home for ethanol plant usage. If that happens, there will be a lot of local truck hauls.

"Will there be enough equipment on the trucking side? Farmers or private companies will have to step into that void."

If exports ramp up, the already outdated upper Mississippi River locks and dams will be stressed. "They are aged and long overdue for rehabilitation. We're seeing more and more unscheduled closures for repairs," Eriksen says.

"It's going to take a lot of work to keep infrastructure up with genetic increases," he says. "States are going to have to take a look at bridges and roads. Already some states and counties have been unable to make repairs because they ran out of budget and tax revenues are being cut. If they add additional permanent weight restrictions, ethanol plants might have to receive grain that has traveled a much greater distance."

Ultimately, Ferrie believes, money will dictate industry expansion. "These guys respond to prices," he says. "It's amazing how quick they'll respond when prices are good."

To contact Charles Johnson, e-mail CJohnson@farmjournal.com.

Top Producer, January 2009

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