Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Crop technology helps limit corn losses in drought

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DES MOINES, Iowa — For months, Illinois farmer David Kellerman held out hope for rain, even as the worst drought in nearly 25 years spread across the country.

He finally gave up when the temperature hit 108 three days in a row. Corn won't develop kernels if it gets too warm during pollination, and Kellerman knew the empty cobs would never fill out. Just after the Fourth of July, he and the neighbor he farms with took an extraordinary step: They cut down the entire crop and baled the withered plants to use as hay for their cattle.

Almost a third of the nation's corn crop has been damaged by heat and drought, and a number of farmers in the hardest-hit areas of the Midwest have cut down their crops midway through the growing season. But the nation could still see one of its largest harvests in history, thanks to plant varieties developed to produce more corn per acre and better resist drought.

Corn production has been improving steadily for decades, the result of scientific advances going back to the introduction of the first commercial hybrid in 1923. Genetic engineering in recent years allowed the development of some strains that borrow DNA from other species for pest resistance.

Corn farmers expected this to be a record year when they planted, sowing 96.4 million acres, the most since 1937. The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted they would get 166 bushels per acre.

But after months with little or no rain and extreme heat in large portions of the Corn Belt, the USDA revised that estimate Wednesday, saying it now expects farmers to average just 146 bushels per acre this year.

That still would be an improvement from a decade ago, when the average was about 129 bushels. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack still expects the nation to produce the third-largest corn crop in American history, even as he announced disaster-relief measures for farmers, like Kellerman, who have lost everything.

"It is important to point out that improved seed technology and improved efficiencies on the farm have made it a little bit easier for some producers to get through a very, very difficult weather stretch," Vilsack said. "Our hope is rains come to the central part of the United States soon to be able to salvage what can be salvaged."

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