While seed breeders have been working to boost drought tolerance for decades, the effort across a range of competitors shows that new tech tools are being deployed to get the job done. "We've been working on drought tolerant hybrids for more than 50 years," says Jeff Schussler, senior research manager, Pioneer, a DuPont Company. "There are more tools today to get that job done."
The company is working with Optimum AquaMax hybrids, designed to perform better under moisture and heat stress.
He points to improved genetic tools that Pioneer uses for genetic predictability, and the development of testing locations that allow the company to stress crops in a number of ways to test how those inbreds perform. Add in an extensive field data collection system and the company is learning plenty.
Schussler notes the company has test data from more than 8,000 locations around the country, and he shared that during the Commodity Classic in Nashville, Tenn., Friday.
Just how does a plant battle drought, and heat, stress? Schussler says the company is working to better to understand the interactions between heat, soil moisture, disease and other factors. "We're working to understand what goes on in these plants," he notes.
That work includes understanding corn water use, the photosynthetic processes involved in keeping the plant green, stomatal control (which is a process that allows the plant to close those cells and preserve moisture in the leaf) and photosynthetic rates. That's in-depth work on a lot of fronts, but the results the company is seeing shows that it is making progress.
Performing under stress
The field tests reviewed included 680 in severe water-limited situations, where corn plants were under severe stress. Across all those data points, the average Pioneer yield was 92.9 bushels per acre. "This was a severe water-limited situation," Schussler notes. "But we showed a 7.1% yield advantage against competitive checks in those trials.
How do AquaMax hybrids perform under favorable conditions? In 7,268 trials the AquaMax hybrids averaged a 216.9 bushel per acre yield and had a 3.4% yield advantage. Schussler notes this shows that the genetic base will yield comparably to other hybrids. In effect, drought tolerance doesn't mean you give up yield potential.
Schussler also showed data from a grower trial where producers were asked to plant Optimum AquaMax in half their planter and their preferred drought hardy hybrid in the other half. "We asked them to plant at their normal population for the first pass and then on the second pass bump up the population by 5,000 plants," he notes.
In that test, the AquaMax hybrids "won" the test 80% of the time. As for the other 20%? "In those trials the farmer had already optimized his planting populations and pushing up another 5,000 plants pushed them over the edge. It was a function of population."
That program involved 161 trials and in the 80% of "wins" the AquaMax hybrid outperformed the comparison hybrid by an average of 10 bushels per acre.
Schussler summed up some key findings from the field trials from 2011:
- Initial data suggests slightly less water use per bushel produced under stress.
- Extensive on-farm comparisons in 2011 confirm superior performance identified in the research pipeline.
- Optimum AquaMax hybrids help growers minimize risk and maximize productivity.
The rise of drought-tolerant hybrids will be welcome relief to growers as the technology becomes more widely available.