This Isn't Your Father's Breeding Engine

By Louis Chapko
Research Scientist at Corteva Agriscience

When I was a youngster growing up on a farm in the ‘60s in central Michigan, the corn we planted was the result of field breeding techniques that included making observation notes and weighing ear corn on hundreds of hybrids. There were no computers, weigh buckets in combines, molecular laboratories, precision phenotyping tools, transgenes, drones as a part of artificial intelligence or gene-editing tools and procedures. As the saying goes, “We’ve come a long way, baby!” We used only what Mother Nature dealt us and selected the best hybrids from there.

Corn Ear

We still rely on a significant contribution from Mother Nature, but in the United States, we have developed an arsenal of tools that have increased corn yields from 60 to more than 170 bushels per acre on average in the past 60 years. There are many areas in the U.S. that routinely average 250-bushel corn on an acre. A general categorization of our current day breeding tools include: double haploids; precision phenotyping such as machines that mimic natural winds; sophisticated and light speed computer hardware and software programs; artificial intelligence such as drones; molecular and greenhouse laboratories that include robotics that can work 24/7; specialized testing procedures and environments such as southern hemisphere winter nurseries and drought locations that are all tied together by our modern day plant breeder.

Plant breeders at Corteva Agriscience,™ Agriculture Division of DowDuPont, are responsible for the significant genetic gains being made at AgVenture. Moreover, these gains have a level of uniqueness that are not duplicated by any other company. A couple of examples of the improved results of this breeding engine are the development of Optimum® AQUAmax® hybrids and the recent improvement in standability, especially plant green snap tolerance.

Modern green snap tolerant hybrid on the left.

The Optimum AQUAmax story is a fascinating example of bringing together breeding technologies such as molecular biology, precision phenotyping, specialized drought testing and long-term drought pedigree knowledge as never done before. The results are drought-tolerant hybrids that show greater than a six-plus bushel average advantage over competitor hybrids. Significant contributions of time, effort and dollars make this a profitable venture for our customers.

One of our most recent significant genetic improvements is corn standability, especially green snap tolerance of our hybrids. There is much satisfaction when witnessing improvement for a significant trait such as green snap. Historically, one of the challenges of improving green snap was that it was not a trait that could be evaluated every growing season. That is because green snap is a result of the unique combination of wind from a storm, coupled with the susceptible growth stage of corn, prior to or up to the plant switching from the vegetative to the reproductive stages. The required timing of this phenomena does not occur in a significant  manner every year. However, when this event happens you want your hybrids to be tolerant. The challenge is to develop the technologies to replicate this thunderstorm/wind susceptible plant stage event in a consistent and precise manner so that hybrids are evaluated for green snap tolerance every growing season. That has been achieved with specialized patented machinery and the result is green snap tolerant AgVenture corn hybrids as never seen before.

Corn

Plant breeding is typically a relatively slow methodical process that takes years to not only develop new technologies, but to develop new improved hybrids from those technologies. Therefore, it is gratifying to witness the vast improvement in green snap seen with modern day AgVenture hybrids.

The need to strike a near perfect balance of yield, agronomic and pest tolerance in a corn hybrid is what keeps plant breeders employed. That challenge is a daily activity for our modern plant breeders as they work to develop new corn hybrids that currently require a minimum of six years to complete. There is much excitement in the air as we develop and deploy new technologies such as digitalized agricultural, artificial intelligence, robotics and gene-editing tools. We are truly scratching the surface on where yield and performance will go.

Optimum® AQUAmax® product performance in water-limited environments is variable and depends on many factors such as the severity and timing  of moisture deficiency, heat stress, soil type, management practices and environmental stress as well as disease and pest pressures. All hybrids may exhibit reduced yield under water and heat stress. Individual results may vary.
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