As our nation confronts the worst drought since 1988, scientific innovations in agriculture can help farmers minimize yield losses. There is no single solution, and the reality is that plants need water to survive. But agricultural researchers and scientists are developing plant breeding and biotechnology innovations which can improve a crop’s ability to use water more efficiently and tolerate drought conditions.
Some 87 percent of the nation’s corn crop and 85 percent of soybeans were experiencing drought in August, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which added, “Over half of the corn and soybean areas are experiencing extreme to exceptional drought. This has led to both reduced yields and earlier harvests.”
“A striking aspect of the 2012 drought is how the drought rapidly increased in severity in early July, during a critical time of crop development for corn and other commodities,” noted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (USDA ERS).
To help alleviate the effects of drought on the U.S. and global food supply, seed companies are working with farmers across America’s farm belt to conduct field trials of drought-tolerant corn varieties.
“We are conducting on-farm Ground Breakers field trials in 2012 to give farmers experience with the technology in multiple hybrids while generating additional data that will help us understand its large-scale benefits,” said Mark Edge, DroughtGardTM Hybrids Lead for Monsanto.
“I’ve been surprised so far. The plants are responding well,” Clay Scott, a Kansas farmer involved in the field trials, told The Washington Post. “The ear size, kernel counts, the ear weights look good,” Scott said.
Brent Wilson, a technical services manager for DuPont Pioneer, pointed out that the farmers growing the company’s hybrid AQUAmaxTM corn-developed using advanced breeding techniques rather than biotechnology-have seen a difference in their crops this summer. “When we hit some of those really dry days, the leaves will kind of curl up when they get under moisture stress, trying to protect themselves,” he explained to CNBC. He added that farmers have reported, “AQUAmax hybrids were able to maintain that leaf area, which is really the engine that drives yield production.”
“It’s been a challenge this year,” added Dustin Latham, a corn grower in Kansas. “It’s been very dry.” But the AQUAmax corn “looks good, it stayed green, green from top to bottom.”
Another major seed developer, Syngenta, launched its “water optimized” hybrid, called Agrisure ArtesianTM in 2010. The hybrids are performing well in about 800 locations now and will be widely available for next season. The plants “maximize yield when it rains, and increase yield up to 15 percent when it doesn’t,” the company says.
Hypothetically, if farmers were able to add 15 percent to the currently predicted yield for 2012, that would be enough additional corn to fill 497,777 rail cars (a train 4,700 miles long) or 1,866,666 tractor-trailer loads.
Syngenta has confidence in its drought-tolerant hybrids with Agrisure Artesian technology outperforming standard hybrids and other drought-tolerant hybrids on the market, according to Wayne Fithian, Syngenta technical product lead for Agrisure Artesian technology. Research showed a 15 percent increase in yield, and “All our validation work is based on yield under moderate to extreme drought,” Fithian said.
The company has developed hybrids for more than just the most likely drought areas by cross breeding hybrids that performed best for specific locations and also were identified as having characteristics for performing well in low-water conditions, Fithian added.
Availability of these technologies would come as welcome news to farmers. According to The Washington Post, weather-related losses felt by farmers in recent years would have many looking to adopt new, innovative solutions for future planting seasons, noting that the drought “could cause an estimated $18 billion in damage to corn, soybeans and other key crops.”
“On the heels of a severe Texas drought last year that cost nearly $8 billion, farmers are more interested than ever in innovations that can make their crops more resilient,” The Washington Post added.
These technological developments build on past innovations that allow today’s farmers to produce crops with less tillage so that more water is stored in the soil, and to resist root-eating insects and weeds so that plants can draw up every drop of available water. Farmers need solutions that result in more “crop per drop.”