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60,000 plants per acre: The future corn crop

Recently, Monsanto unveiled a wide range of agriculture solutions being developed to assist farmers as they work to grow better harvests, protect their crops and deliver more to society. The company highlighted a series of innovations under development across its research and development portfolio, including its research platforms in plant breeding, plant biotechnology, chemistry, biologicals and data science.

Among the ideas being tested by Monsanto is a High-Density Corn System. This research project is expected to allow farmers to increase the number of plants per acre to produce a higher yield.

“When I left my Dad’s farm in 1970 to go to college, the average corn yields across the country were about 75 bushels an acre and the average corn population was about 17,000 plants per acre,” said Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer. “In 2015, yields were at about 170 bushels and part of that gain over the years has been achieved by plant density, changing to narrower rows and better fertilization and nutrient management.

“As we look ahead and test ultra high density corn, which entails sowing 40,000 to 60,000 plants per acre, rethinking seed spacing and using better management from a disease and nutrition standpoint, the result will be a new kind of corn planting and a new corn crop for the future.”

Fraley sees the High-Density Corn System as an important tool in an integrated set of solutions that will allow for yields that will double today’s yield figures by 2050, producing enough food for an ever booming world population.

Testing done by Monsanto will not be based on the seed alone. It will include many other new high-tech factors that will play a role in reaching that ultimate high-yielding goal.

“There is so much increased knowledge of how we integrate what we understand from the gene-level of the seed, with the right traits, the right seed treatments, the right variable planting rate and then using a variety of new tools above the ground,” Fraley said. “Things like satellite images and sensors on the farm equipment can give growers an advantage in managing yields, reducing inputs and driving that increase in food security that the world needs.”

Another step in the process of finding ways to get more production from every acre is being sure that equipment manufacturers understand what is needed from their side of the equation as planters and combines will need to up their game for higher plant populations in the spring and bigger yields in the fall.

“Monsanto has great relationships with almost every major equipment company and we are working in cooperation on projects like High-Density Corn Systems,” Fraley said.  “Obviously, where you are talking about harvesting 300- to 400-bushel corn in the future, it’s going to take a redesign of the equipment and the capabilities to manage and store that crop, so manufacturers play a big role in the integration process of these new ideas.”

High-Density Corn System testing is being conducted right now on a global level and Monsanto is using one of their own products, Climate, to move the trials forward.

“In Ohio, for instance, most of the fields look pretty flat and uniform, but in reality there are many differences in soil types and elevation, moisture patterns and potential for disease,” Fraley said. “So, to be able to utilize tools like Climate helps us target genetics to any given field and also assists in finding the right population and management solutions throughout the field to get optimal yield across the field. Those tools will work together to give farmers more confidence in High-Density Corn Systems in the future.”

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