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The 2009 season worth a closer look

Corn yields in 2009 ranked among the highest ever recorded in the U.S., despite delayed planting. According to USDA’s National Ag Statistics Service, Indiana’s average yield was 166 bushels per acre vs. 160 in 2008, and 158 for the five-year average. It wasn’t hard to find farmers reporting whole-farm averages of 200 bushels per acre. Was it because of new genetics, traits, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides? Or was it thanks to the cool, wet summer with minimal stress? Which is more important: genetics or environment?

Some argue an improved genetics base was most important. Others insist herbicide- and insect-resistant traits played the biggest role.

Key Points

• Examples of environment playing a vital role in development are easy to find.

• A cool, wet summer and minimum stress aided corn in 2009.

• GMO traits protect yield, but they don’t add yield.

Vote for environment

I believe environment is at least as important as the genetic component. Imagine a pair of identical human twins, separated at birth by war. One ends up in Zimbabwe and doesn’t even get sufficient milk and food. The other ends up studying at Harvard in the U.S. He becomes a famous scientist. What role did environment play in their development?

To study environment vs. genetics, we planted seeds of a single-cross hybrid both in the greenhouse and outside near Greensburg a few years ago. From identical genetics, plants inside grew more than 12 feet tall and matured at 100 days. Water, temperature, light and nutrition were all favorable.

Seeds planted outside grew 9 feet tall, maturing in about 160 days. Environment can overshadow genetics in impact on development.

What farmers say

Over the past 10 years advertising and salesmen convinced Jim Douglas, Flat Rock, that to get the highest corn yields, he must use hybrids with GMO traits. He wasn’t interested in non-GMO hybrids until a couple of years ago.

A year ago I asked Douglas to compare three non-GMO hybrids against his best hybrids with insect- and glyphosate-tolerance. Harvest finally arrived. He first told me one of his best-traited hybrids yielded 220 bushels per acre. I told him I was happy for him.

However, in the next sentence he informed me that one of his non-GMO hybrids yielded 245 bushels per acre. He’d already figured it cost $90 per bag less to plant non-GMO hybrids.

It’s true that he wasn’t comparing apples to apples. These hybrids weren’t isolines. But there’s a point. Just because you’re planting hybrids with traits doesn’t guarantee highest yields.

A review of 2009 leads to this advice: Select hybrids with the best base genetics. Use GMO traits if you need them to control certain insects or weeds. Realize that traits don’t add yield. Traits simply protect yield potential.

Nanda writes from Indianapolis. E-mail

This article published in the February, 2010 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.