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Seed genetics help crops withstand drought stress


Widespread drought issues in May and June likely put a significant dent in corn yield potential. But all is not lost due in part to advancements in seed genetics along with some timely rain, according to Mike Kavanaugh, director of product development for AgReliant Genetics.

“It’s all about genetic improvement and adaptation,” Kavanaugh told FarmWeek at the AgriGold specialty products conference in Ivesdale. “This year in particular will be about yield compensation. We had a very challenging first half of the season.”

USDA in July lowered its national corn yield estimate by 4 bushels to 177.5 bushels per acre, which would still be a record, and left its soybean yield estimate unchanged at 52 bushels despite the drought. Many traders believe those estimates could decline later this season as impacts of the drought come into light.

Looking back at previous drought years, Illinois corn yields averaged just 73 bushels per acre in 1988 (when the trend line was near 129) and 105 bushels in 2012 (when the trend line was near 173). Last year, small portions of eastern and western Illinois battled drought, but the state corn yield still averaged a record 214 bushels per acre.

Kavanaugh believes genetic improvements in the crops are part of the reason for better performance in challenging environments over time.

“Twenty-five years ago, the germplasm may not have had the drought tolerance, that aggressive root system and maybe the tropical germplasm in the background to withstand some of these conditions,” he said. “That’s not to say we haven’t had the top end of the yield knocked off (this season).

“But, when you compare the germplasm we had 25 years ago to what we had 50 years ago, it was a major step change,” he continued. “That’s where adaptation and improvement continue to come in.”

Corn yield potential continues to grow at an annual clip of about 2 to 2.5 bushels per acre since the introduction of hybrid varieties, according to Kavanaugh.

“I think we’ll continue to see that with the technology and breeding we have,” he said. “It’s all about finding the germplasm that adapts to the environment.”

AgReliant recently launched new full-season hybrids with next level germplasm that offer a potential yield advantage of 5 bushels per acre compared to just a year ago, Kavanaugh said.

AgReliant seeks to develop germplasm with higher yield capability, but also better hybrid characteristics such as emergence, standability and greensnap tolerance. Disease screening also helps AgReliant develop seed products that better withstand pressure from diseases, such as tar spot.

“We’re really excited about our pipeline right now,” Kavanaugh said. That pipeline includes additional development and testing of short stature corn, which Kavanaugh believes could be widely available at the commercial level by 2026 to 2030.

Short stature corn varieties produce corn at an average ear height of 20 to 24 inches as opposed to the common height now of 32 to 48 inches.

“There’s definitely a lot of benefits (of short stature corn) – better standability, less greensnap and more season-long access to deliver nutrition and pesticides to these plants,” Kavanaugh said. “The industry is in a major testing phase right now. It has to learn how to manage it.”

AgReliant will spotlight its latest crop advancements during its innovation tours next month in Champaign along with stops in Westfield, Indiana and Ames, Iowa.

This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit

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