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Published February 22 2013

NDSU prof brings corn into the cold

Fargo - Corn may be king, but it hasn’t conquered the cold.

A North Dakota State University researcher aims to change that.

Professor Marcelo Carena is breeding cold-tolerant, short-season, fast-drying corn hybrids tailored to withstand the challenging conditions that face growers in northern Minnesota and North Dakota.

The Minnesota Corn Growers Association recently funded a study involving Carena’s research with the goal of increasing the performance and profitability of Northern growers.

Tom Haag, president of the MCGA, said growers already have the best technologies for planting and harvesting, and superior corn hybrids “will throw the door wide open” for increased production.

“It’s exciting to see the work at NDSU beginning to have a positive impact on production,” he said in a news release. “The technology will move growers another step closer to meeting food needs of a growing global population.”

Corn grain acreage planted in the United States increased by more than 22 percent in the past 20 years, from 79.3 million acres in 1992 to 97.2 million acres last year, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Planted corn acreage more than tripled in North Dakota during that time, from 1 million acres to

3.6 million acres, while Minnesota’s corn acreage increased from 6.7 million acres to 8.75 million acres.

Yet growers in North Dakota and central and northern Minnesota continue to lose billions of dollars each year to the high costs of drying corn and processing low-quality grain, Carena said. While U.S. corn productivity has increased in the past 80 years, the stability of hybrid corn varieties has decreased in the past 40 years, he wrote in a July report on the MCGA-funded study.

Enter NDSU’s corn breeding program, which Carena has spearheaded since the native Argentinian arrived at NDSU in 1999 after earning a doctorate from Iowa State University in the heart of the nation’s Corn Belt.

“You need to have hybrids that stand up to everything,” he said. “You need to put them under stress conditions all the time.”

To do that, the program maintains nurseries in South America, New Zealand and the United States, using the various growing seasons and climates to select corn plants with traits best suited for Northern growers, such as cold tolerance and resistance to drought, lodging and disease.

“We plant very early, even under hard frost,” he said.

Without the multiple sites, it might take 15 years to develop a hybrid, Carena said. The NDSU corn breeding program – the most northern program of its kind in North America – is turning out new hybrids in four years, he said.

“At the end, we have over 100 environments of testing for corn products,” he said.

The program focuses on adapting unique and exotic maize germplasm and developing short-season hybrids. NDSU had the first research program in the northern Corn Belt devoted to enhancing germplasm with tropical materials, Carena said.

The program has released 38 new varieties in the past decade and plans to release six to eight more in April, Carena said. During the MCGA grant period, six new short-season products were released and distributed to exclusive industry partners for commercial use, he noted in his report.

Through the program, NDSU researchers also have developed methodology for measuring complex traits such as rate of dry down and cold tolerance, traits that may involve hundreds of genes, Carena said. The program screens about half a million corn plants per year.

“It’s a big, big system,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528