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Will 'short corn' change the landscape of the rural Midwest?

Tim Alexander
So-called "short corn" could prove more resilient to extreme weather events than its taller, traditional cousins.

Research that could mark a potential transformational shift in corn production is being quietly conducted in a rural Roanoke crop field owned by farmer Ken Bachman.

Under the watchful eyes of Bayer Crop Sciences agronomists, Bachman is growing “short stature” corn-- a dwarf, slightly larger than half-size version of standard commercial corn hybrids-- in order to gauge its standability, ear-kernel production, and total yield in comparison with its larger cousins.

According to Bayer Crop Sciences technical development representative Jason Carr, not only is short stature corn proving to be more durable in extreme weather than standard commercial corn hybrids, its shorter height allows for more flexible-- and efficient-- timing for applications of crop inputs like fungicides, insecticides and nitrogen fertilizers.

In layman's terms, Bayer’s short-stature corn seed hybrid, which will roll out in limited quantities in 2023, is more resilient to climate change and carries potentially enormous benefits for the environment in that it could help facilitate a cleaner, less polluted waterways system.

A “game changing” innovation

Scientists at Bayer, which markets their corn hybrid products under the Dekalb/Asgrow and Stone Seed brand names, call short-stature corn the “next game-changing innovation” in agriculture. With a potential for a broad acre fit across the Corn Belt, short stature corn is showing that it can provide similar or greater yield potential than traditional hybrids across a range of geographies and environments.

Tim Alexander

Carr might be most excited, however, about short corn’s potential to optimize and reduce field applications of nitrogen and phosphorus-- two common fertilizers used in Midwest agriculture that are widely blamed for contributing to the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone, a 5,000 square-mile, near-oxygenless mass of toxic algae that threatens the northern Gulf’s ecosystem and marine life.

“There is an advantage to being able to get across the crop during the growing season. When we split applications of nitrogen (into fall and summer sprayings, rather than spraying once in the fall) we can keep it in the field better. Making it easier to apply the nitrogen when it is needed is one benefit,” said Carr.

“Another interesting benefit that we’ve seen is that it seems the roots (of short corn) develop more, (stronger) and faster. We’re working to understand the mechanism of why that happens, but if those roots can explore more soil volume a better root system can take advantage of more root nutrients out of the soil. Long term…with that bigger root mass I think we can get the same amount of nutrients (out of the soil) that we are currently applying to get more yield. To me, that’s one of the definitions of sustainability.”

Farmer reaction enthusiastic, curious

Dozens of curious central Illinois farmers showed up at the Bachman farm on August 25-26 for Bayer’s 2022 Roanoke FOCUS Tour to check out the latest research results on short stature corn and other agronomic trials being conducted on corn and soybeans. Their overall reaction to Bayer’s “mini corn” hybrid technology has been one of curiosity and cautious enthusiasm, according to Amy Russell, sales implementation lead for Bayer Crop Sciences.

“Being a really new concept, it’s kind of fun to see everyone’s reaction to it,” said Russell, adding that most farmers she had spoken to were intrigued by short stature corn’s potential for increased standability, especially in light of recent derecho and other blustery weather events responsible for toppling “tall” corn across the Midwest.

“Having that standability is a key component of short stature corn, and one that farmers are getting really excited about,” as is its ability to be planted, harvested and maintained with the same standard farming equipment and attachments they’ve always used, Russell noted.

“We are ensuring that there will be 24 inches of clearance on the ear height. If a hybrid ends up with less than 24 inches of clearance, there are harvestability issues. We are currently partnering with equipment manufacturers through our New Berlin, Illinois location and are researching this right now,” she said.

Farmers are also expressing concern that the short stature of the plant will result in less ear and kernel development, leading to shorter yields. Carr assured the growers attending the Roanoke FOCUS Tour that years of research is providing excellent yield results. “The yield is very comparable. The first few years I combined it I didn’t know what to expect, but I got in there and it looks very similar,” he said.

Tim Alexander

Slow product rollout will include help for growers

Bayer’s introduction period for short stature corn is tied to the company’s “Smart Corn System” initiative, a plan that combines the benefits of the new corn hybrids with tailored agronomic recommendations and digital services that will be made available to customers. However, specific launch timing, system offerings, available trait packages and other details are still being worked out by the company.

“We’re really using this opportunity to roll out this product as not just a stand-alone product but part of a system, so our customers can expect not only the short stature corn, but also a planting recommendation and a management program,” said Russell. “What you’re going to see is 60,000 acres next year, and 300,000 acres nationwide in 2024. It’s a slow launch so we can offer, test and verify those agronomic recommendations to give our customers the best opportunity for success.”

Short corn attracting industry, academic interest

Bayer’s Technology Development Group has 29 research locations totaling over 800 acres across central and northern Illinois, including large locations at Newark, Warrensburg and Roanoke. Field agronomists at many of those locations are researching short stature corn. In addition to Bayer, competing seed technology companies are expected to fully launch their versions of short stature corn before the end of this decade.

The hybrid’s potential has also captured the attention of academics including the Crop Physiology Lab at the University of Illinois, where short stature corn has been under study by Dr. Fred Below and his team for several years. Below’s team has been examining nitrogen and fertility needs, row spacing and foliar protection in order to increase short corn yield potential. The Lab’s findings are expected to be made public sometime very soon.

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Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.