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Shortstop Corn

Short-stature corn nixes lodging and greensnap nearly to the point of zero.

“See this?” asks Calvin Treat as he compares two corn plants that initially seem identical – with two exceptions.

One is a conventional hybrid, most of which range in height from 9 to 11 feet. The other is what Bayer Crop Science scientists term a short-stature hybrid that’s 6 to 8 feet tall.

“You can see the nodes are spread far apart on the taller hybrid,” says Treat, who heads corn crop technology for Bayer.

Not so with short-stature corn. Although both plants have the same number of nodes, Bayer has bred the short-stature hybrid for closer distance between nodes. Bayer is also developing a genetically modified short-stature corn, too.

Yield potential remains the same between a hybrid offered in conventional and short-stature height, Treat adds. Short-stature corn offers additional perks, though.

“After yield, the next thing corn growers often ask is, ‘Does it stand?’ ” says Treat. That’s a concern after a windstorm, when taller corn with widely spaced nodes can easily lean over, he adds.

“As corn starts to grow back up, it goosenecks, which makes it harder to combine,” he says. “Yield potential decreases because the plant has more difficulty taking up nutrients. It also isn’t optimizing photosynthesis, because it is lying all over the place.”

Tall corn is also more prone to greensnap, which occurs when rapidly growing corn snaps following high winds. “When the plant snaps off, it’s pretty much done,” he says. 

Ditto for stalk lodging. “As a corn plant develops, it takes energy out of the stalk and puts it into the ear,” says Treat. This weakens the stalk, which then collapses the plant.

Bayer aims to commercialize conventionally bred short-stature corn in the early to mid-2020s in the U.S. Genetically modified versions may debut later this decade as it gains regulatory approvals. So far, Bayer has seen no performance or yield differences between short-stature hybrids and conventional ones, he says. 

Why It Works

Short-stature corn nixes lodging and greensnap nearly to the point of zero, says Treat. Short-stature corn:

  • Is less of a wind target.
  • Is stronger standing due to the compressed distance between nodes. 
  • Has greater resistance to greensnap. 

Treat says other short-stature corn perks include the following:

  • An extension of the application window for toolbar-sidedressed nitrogen (N) by up to a week.
  • Easier access to optimized late-season N and pesticide applications using real-time digital agricultural products.
  • The potential to plant thicker. Bayer scientists say shorter plants may permit higher densities of plants that emphasize ear and kernel production rather than plant biomass as do taller corn plants. 

“The increased number of plants on each acre will lead to more yield,” predicts Bob Reiter, who heads research and development for Bayer Crop Science.

High Populations

Bayer joins the Stine Seed Company in marketing short-stature hybrids. Stine first launched short-standing high population (HP) hybrids in 2012. The hybrids’ height, though, has been a means to an end for Stine. What the firm really wanted was hybrids planted at high populations. 

On a per-plant basis, ear size of .33 pounds has not changed from the 1930s to 2019. What has caused yields to quadruple during this time frame is the same factor that’s caused plant populations to increase fourfold: the ability of corn plants to withstand higher levels of density stress, say Stine officials.

This fits how Stine selected its hybrids starting in the 1970s. The industry practice back then was to overplant and thin hybrid plots by hand. Back then, Stine didn’t have the labor to do this. By nixing hand-thinning, the firm unknowingly selected hybrids that could tolerate higher densities. 

“By 1996, we began to understand we had germplasm that could withstand high populations,” says Myron Stine, Stine Seed president. 

Stine then began selecting for this trait. The hybrids that thrived under high populations looked different, with more upright leaves and smaller tassels. This enabled them to harvest more sunlight and generate more photosynthesis, say Stine officials. 

Narrow-row spacings also accompany high populations that aren’t possible in 30-inch or wider rows. Corn production suffers when plants are spaced closer than 5 inches within a row, says Warren Stine, Stine assistant director of corn research. Since it launched HP hybrids, Stine has varied row spacings, going from 12-inch rows in 2013 to twin-row 20-inch spacings in 2015 before currently settling on 15-inch rows.

The 15-inch rows still encourage equi-distant spacing that efficiently harvests sunlight and spurs photosynthesis. 

“With 15-inch row spacings, you could potentially go up to 75,000 to 80,000 plants per acre (ppa) before you hit that 5-inch threshold,” says Warren Stine. 

Still, even shorter hybrids cannot currently withstand populations that high. In highly productive ground, as in central Iowa, Stine recommends populations of 43,000 to 45,000 ppa for many of its HP hybrids. That’s higher than populations of conventional hybrids, which often range in the mid-30,000s. 

“Keep in mind these rates differ by hybrid,” says Myron Stine. “One hybrid may work best at 40,000 plants per acre.”

Populations also can differ by region, says David Thompson, Stine marketing and sales director. 

For example, an HP hybrid planted under dryland conditions in Kansas will have a lower optimal population than one planted in central Iowa. “You can take your normal population and plant 110% to 120% of that,” he says. 

HP hybrids have the potential to yield 10% to 15% more than conventional hybrids. Fertility, though, is key. Multiple N applications are recommended. 

Sulfur is key, however. “If you don’t have adequate sulfur, it doesn’t matter if you apply more N,” says Warren Stine.

Future Outlook

Bayer is using both conventional breeding and transgenic technology to develop short-stature corn hybrids. Bayer sees potential for both approaches for U.S. farmers, says Treat. 

Bayer also plans to offer short-stature corn for planting in both 30-inch and narrow rows, Treat says. 

“I believe this technology will be a blockbuster,” says Reiter. “We still have a lot of work to do, but it is a very exciting and promising technology.”

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