Adel, Ia. – Since the commercial advent of hybrid corn in the 1930s, Iowa farmers have increased populations of corn plants from about 8,000 an acre to 25,000 by the 1980s and to an average of 34,000 to 36,000 today.
What is corn’s equivalent of Mach 4 jet speed: 60,000 plants per acre? Maybe 75,000 plants per acre?
Therein lies the key to greater yields, which is the main thrust of what is projected to be a doubling of world food demand by 2050.
In fields north of Adel, Stine Seed Co. is testing those unheard-of concepts in quiet fields that are the agricultural equivalent of testing grounds for new jet aircraft or hot auto racing engines.
"It can be done," said Myron Stine, chief marketing officer for Stine Seed Co., of the 60,000-plant-per-acre goal as he tore the leaves and silks from an ear of corn at the end of a row on a Stine test field.
The ear looked normal, with kernel fill to within a row or two of the end. Any Iowa farmer would be proud to claim it.
"This field was intended to be around 60,000 plants per acre but the planter malfunctioned and in some places, we have rows that would be at a 75,000-plant population level," Stine said.
"So we’re getting a good test of what can be done."
Agronomists know, of course, that transferring yields from carefully controlled test plots to a normal field with more variable conditions and less individual attention is easier said than done.
Farmers know that cramming more plants into an acre carries risk. More plants demand more water. Tighter plant stands reduce sunlight penetration.
For the Stine company to be out on the edge for corn is mildly ironic, since the company was founded originally in the early 1940s by Bob Stine as a soybean seed company. Bob’s son Harry took over and turned a modest seed company just west of Des Moines into the nation’s largest independent seed company.
In the early 1990s, Harry veered Stine from exclusive focus on soybeans and into corn, continuously breeding new germplasm that Stine believes to be the key to great populations and yields.
Myron Stine declined to give a specific time when the 60,000-plant population might be reached. Seed companies have learned to temper claims about high-population seeds.
For the present, Stine is urging farmers to get to the 40,000 population threshold. Stine’s seed of choice is its 9806 line, which is triple stacked (because of its triple trait protection against rootworms, corn borers and herbicides). The line combines Stine germplasm with Monsanto’s herbicide and pest-fighting genetic traits.
"We’re comfortable with a projection of 40,000 plant population on certain types of ground," said Stine. He noted that several growers in central Illinois had planted at a rate of more than 40,000 in the current growing year.
Stine’s entry into corn germplasm in the 1990s coincided with the rise of biotechnology. As an independent with a solid germplasm base, Stine is in a position to license genetic traits from seed giants such as Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta to offer farmers a wide array of genetic choices.
Stine has licensed from Monsanto for the triple stacked and Roundup Ready corn traits, from Syngenta for its Agrisure triple stack, and from Dow/DuPont for resistance to Dow Agroscience’s Herculex herbicide.
Stine’s licensing tie with Monsanto hasn’t prevented it from taking on the ultimate biotech mountain, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybean traits that have dominated fields for a decade and a half.
Three years ago, it licensed with Bayer Crop Sciences to develop LibertyLink soybeans, which resist Bayer’s Ignite herbicide.
LibertyLink is a direct competitor to Monsanto’s Roundup glyphosate. Many a determined seed competitor has tried to knock off Roundup in the last decade, with little success.
Like other Roundup competitors, LibertyLink has faced slow going in its first introductions. But Stine thinks that increased resistance by weeds to Roundup is bringing more buyers around.
"We’re seeing good sales in Arkansas and southern Missouri, where resistance to Roundup has been strongest," Stine said.
Agronomists such as Michael Owen of Iowa State University say Iowa is on the eve of a glyphosate resistance problem in its corn and soybean fields.
"The time to act is now, before the problem gets into the fields," Owen said.
Another area where Stine has declined to march to Monsanto’s drum is over Smartstax, Monsanto’s eight-trait corn genetic technology. Billed as the hottest new thing in seeds when introduced last year, Smartstax proved to be less than a roaring success because farmers balked at paying prices as much as $20 per bag more than the triple stacks that have been so successful.
Stine licensed Smartstax, but Myron Stine said he was "disappointed" in the sales.
"Farmers are reluctant to change seeds, especially when they have products that work," Stine said, referring to what have been routine 200-bushel-per-acre corn yields in Iowa in recent years.
This year Stine is putting Monsanto’s older, triple stack technology onto its germplasm in the push for the 40,000-plant populations. Smartstax, Stine said, "won’t be promoted."