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Crop genetics show off resiliency

There has been a common theme among growers and researchers at harvest time in recent years — resiliency.

Conditions haven’t been ideal for many in the Midwest as drought has been the headline over the past three years.

Crop yields through that stretch have often been quoted as being “surprising” or “unbelievable” in the face of dry conditions.

Ryan Budnik, who runs the Iowa Crop Improvement Association’s yield trials, said it’s all about hybrids.

“It’s genetics,” he said following the trials in 2023. “There’s the G (genetics) and E (environment) and the E is variable. As long as that genetic component is stable, that’s what we are after.”

He said some areas he manages saw 50% of normal rainfall but still managed 200-bushel corn. The trials even saw nearly 90-bushel soybeans in some areas.

“It’s the same story around the state,” Budnik said. “We hem and haw throughout the year and we get pessimistic. Guys in the northwest corner of the state have really struggled, going on almost five years under their 30-year average rainfall, and that adds up. But the smiles on their faces after the season is great.”

“I had (farmers) double checking their monitors a couple times,” Budnik said. “I couldn’t believe the yields I was getting. I never thought we’d hit 200 bushels in some of those corn fields.”

This isn’t by accident. Eric Wilson, an agronomist with Wyffels Hybrids, said the advancement he has seen in seed technology has been incredible.

“The industry plant breeders as a whole, at Wyffels and other companies, have done a fantastic job at breeding corn to be more stress-tolerant,” Wilson said. “You can think about that collectively — drought stress or nutrient stress or excessive water stress.”

He said one data point — seed population — shows just how effective the technology has become.

“If you go back 20 years ago, a lot of people were planting corn at 30,000,” he said. “Now you have guys pushing 36,000 to 40,000 plants per acre on a 30-inch row. Corn is now more stress-tolerant and able to be crowded more to compete better for those resources in the field.”

Outside of seed technology, Wilson said he credits producers for knowing their fields and improving their practices to get the most out of each crop.

He said farmers are more in tune with what it takes to manage a crop through tough conditions, through the help of research and experience.

“We are trying to produce as many bushels as we can,” he said. “Everything’s gotten more expensive on inputs, so we are trying to do this with minimal costs. We know what to watch out for if certain events happen.

“We can’t control the rainfall, but if you see something coming, there are steps you might be able to take ahead of time to alleviate any problems ahead of harvest.”

Randy Meinsma, field manager for FIRST’s yield trials, said farmers rely on good yields and seeing the way the crop has become increasingly resilient over the years has been a sight to see.

“There were some locations that had cracks in the ground in the dry weather and to still see the plant standing in that - it’s amazing,” he said. ”We had some pretty good windy days too and it was surprising and amazing to see these kinds of yields.”

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