Special Report: How the Weather is Changing Agriculture The combination of biotech traits, genetics and agronomic practices all work together to help mitigate drought risk, according to Chan Mazour, director of Monsanto’s Gothenburg Water Utilization Learning Center.
“Something like 90% of the country will experience drought at some point during the growing season,” he says. “If I was a farmer, my strategy would be to make every good decision I can from genetics, biotech and an agronomic standpoint to protect myself as much as possible if drought sets in.”
1. Choose hybrids that are better suited to managing drought conditions.
Modern hybrids have come a long way in water-use efficiency.
“A 1930s hybrid produces four bushels of corn per every inch of water in the system. A modern 2011 hybrid produces about 10 bushels per every inch of water in the system, that’s a significant improvement,” Mazour says.
Combining breeding and biotechnology are helping make even larger strides in drought tolerance. Monsanto plans to launch its new DroughtGard hybrids for the 2013 growing season.
“These hybrids have a strong drought tolerance in their base genetics and then we add in the biotech trait for a more additive approach to what is currently commercially available,” Mazour says. “It has been tested in years with excessive moisture with no yield penalty for rain, either.”
One positive of temperature and weather swings is it opens doors for the research community.
“Years like this one help us make big gains as far as understanding stress tolerance,” says Chris Eichhorn, Wyffell product development manager. “If we get too many good years in a row, we can get fooled into losing some of that stress tolerance in our breeding programs. A year like 2012 helps me sort through what hybrids aren’t tough enough to make it.”
Even if they identify one tough hybrid, Eichhorn recommends that farmers diversify their seed investment.
“Spread out your risk. You can’t anticipate what next year will be like and you can’t choose hybrids based off of last year’s data,” he says.
Planting a variety of hybrids with a range of maturities is one way for farmers to hedge their bets. Eichhorn recommends planting a quarter early maturing hybrids, half right on schedule and another quarter later than normal. A hot spell during pollination may get a portion of planted acres, but never all. Spreading out harvest is yet another benefit.
“Harvest is about timing and if everything is ready at the same time you’re probably going to harvest some too early when it’s wet and some way too late when it might have issues with standability and disease pressure,” he says. “In my mind, three hybrids is the minimum, but I would rather see five or six on a farm.”
2. Protect plants with biotech traits.
Biotech traits, even those not directly related to water use, also help when it comes to the drought issue.
“Biotech traits that provide below or above-ground protection from insects protect the plant and the vascular tissues that bring water into the plant and move it around where it needs to go,” Mazour says.
Dry weather serves to magnify the effects of insect feeding, Eichhorn says.
“Corn rootworm pressure has been incredibly high across large areas of the Midwest this year,” he says. “I think it’s been high for three to four years, but we haven’t seen the effect because we’ve had ample moisture. The plant is chewed on, but with all the moisture it still yields well.”
In 2012, the effects of feeding were more extreme. Eichhorn observed more small ears, firing and lodging because plants were deficient in nutrients and moisture.
“As an industry, we’re lazy in thinking that there’s corn rootworm technology in the plant so we can plant it and forget it,” he says. “In addition to the technology, we need to scout insect flights and control larvae.”
3. Pay attention to agronomics.
“Simply planting corn two inches deep so it can produce the root it needs to produce higher yields is important,” Mazour says. “Conservation tillage also is important along with getting plant density and row spacing right. All work to help manage a risk from drought.”
Dialing in plant density and row spacing varies by operation, but Mazour predicts greater certainty in the future.
“In about five to seven years, we should be customizing planting recommendations on a field-by-field basis,” he says. “We will be able to recommend what hybrid to use, where to vary population in different parts of the field, variable rate fertilizer and variable rate irrigation. Equipment will be a big part in being able to do that.”
Mazour also notes the importance of starting clean and staying clean with weed control and the benefits of split nitrogen application.
“A split nitrogen application really helped save on input costs this year,” he says. “As the drought set in and got worse by the week and yield goals kept ticking down, producers were able to decide not to make the second application. That doesn’t help yield, but it does help management.”
Precision technology is another aspect of the agronomic and risk management puzzle.
“Lowering input costs is a good thing in good times and a better thing in hard times,” says Tim Heins, Raven Industries product manager. “It’s important to be as efficient as possible and squeeze every bit of yield out of inputs.”
Getting rows straight and avoiding overlap with GPS and guidance are a great place to start, and new wireless data transfer options can keep crop advisors in the loop for better decision making.