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Drought-Tolerant Corn Standing Tall So Far

July 31, 2012, 9:58 PM by Ben Dunsmoor

Drought-Tolerant Corn Standing Tall So Far

As drought conditions worsen across the region drought-tolerant corn products are being put to the test.

For the past several years, seed companies have been developing corn that can survive the dry weather. Now some of those crops are actually in the ground and farmers are waiting to see just how well they grow.

Because of that new technology, it isn’t causing all South Dakota farmers to lose hope in the face of this summer’s drought.

"I think it will be a good year even if we don't have those 200 bushel yields," Baltic farmer Jared Questad said.

Questad not only farms but is also a seed dealer for Pioneer Hi-Breds. And one of the products in his field right now is called AQUAmax.

"Specifically in South Dakota we have hundreds of trials of AQUAmax products in South Dakota this year," Pioneer Hi-Bred Area Manager Alan Scott said.

Scott says Pioneer spends $3 million every day in researching new technology to make crops perform better in the field. When it comes to drought-tolerant corn this summer is a realistic test for the brand new product.

"So we can go through days and weeks of situations like we've had this year and still have grain in the fall to sell," Scott said.

Monsanto is also developing its own product called DroughtGard which is a hybrid corn that can withstand dry weather. The product won't be available commercially until next year but right now it's being tested in 68 locations in the state, including a farm near Parker.

"We might lose some of those kernels here, but if we happen to catch a rain those might go ahead and fill out,” Corby Jensen who is Monsanto’s Technology Development Manager for Nebraska and the Dakotas said as he looked at an ear of DroughtGard corn.

While the dry weather is still hard on so-called drought tolerant corn, Jensen says there is hope for a crop despite being nearly six inches behind on rainfall in the last two months.

"A trait like DroughtGard is allowing the corn plant to thrive a longer period of time, so if there's a few extra days it can survive waiting for that next rainfall event," Jensen said.

Drought-tolerant corn is currently being tested from South Dakota to Texas and this fall promises to bring answers to those tests.

"We're going to find out. We're going to find out this year because this is the largest, widest range testing that's going to be done on these products," South Dakota State Agronomy Crops Specialist Larry Wagner said.

But even without using some of the drought-tolerant products, experts say crops are holding up better now than even 20 years ago because of the modern day farming practices being used.

Scott says one factor that can help corn survive dry conditions is how early it was planted when there was still rain available in the spring.

"So you're going to see early day products are going to probably do better in a drought year than in a later day silking type product," Scott said.

Jensen adds that keeping weeds and insects off plants is also important.

"It's about the whole package, eliminating weeds that can rob the soils of valuable water, better genetics, residue management, using no-till practices have been a proven way to conserve soil moisture. So, again it's about putting all those pieces together to give yourself the best chance at success possible," Jensen said.

"Those will make them very, very efficient, all of those different practices put together and the genetics,” Wagner said. “But it still needs rain at some point or another; it needs to have rain to make everything go.”

Both Monsanto and Pioneer say their research and development into these new hybrids is all about reducing the risk for farmers.

"So, it's really stabilizing the performance level and in essence mitigating another risk growers may occur," Jensen said.

That's why a farmer like Questad knows he may not have a bumper crop this year, but he still has hope for the harvest.

"It's getting to the point where we are probably losing yield and that's going to happen, but I think there is still something to be hopeful for and I think it's still there," Questad said.

And harvest will really be the time when farmers, scientists and researchers will get to see how tall the corn is going to stand in the face of this summer's blistering drought.

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