Good genes: Farmers attribute crops' success to improved genetics

Farmers in Bay County are breathing sighs of relief as most of their crops are coming in with average or above-average yields, despite a less-than-perfect growing season.
“The corn is fabulous,” said John Burk, a Monitor Township grower. “It is way better than we were expecting. Some fields are producing 200 bushels of corn (per acre).

“Our soybeans are doing well, too. We can’t complain about the yields.”
Growers were far from assured a good harvest this year. Bob Kernstock, president of the Bay County Farm Bureau, said the growing season’s weather roller coaster had him nervous.
“We started out with a really cold, wet spring, and then had a pretty good dry spell there in July,” Kernstock said. “We really didn’t have too many hopes for a good yield this year, but things are coming out average or above average.”
Dennis Stein, farm management educator for the Saginaw Valley District of Michigan State University Extension, said late planting could have been catastrophic if the weather had been any worse this summer.
“Realistically, if we had a cooler summer and an early frost, we could have had a 40 to 50 percent frost loss,” Stein said. “Growers could have lost up to 25 percent of their crop totally — it would never have made the maturity we look for.”
Stein said a hot summer and mild fall allowed crops to recover some, but that part of the success started before the seeds were even planted.
Experts said this year’s harvest was likely saved by improved genetics of seeds.
“Ten years ago, these crops wouldn’t have recovered like they did,” Kernstock said. “It is all in the genetics.”
Stein explained that major seed companies are selectively “breeding” new varieties of corn, soybeans and wheat for improved yields and performance.
Tom Ittner of Ittner Bean & Grain in Auburn said the most advances have been made with corn, although soybeans, wheat and dry beans have also benefited.
“The genetics have evolved to the point that crops dry down quickly,” Ittner said. “A decade ago, we would still have crops in the field, likely until after the first hard frost. We could have seen frozen crops, frost damage and wetter-than-typical crops coming in.”
Corn’s ability to dry down quickly is a big boost to farmers’ bottom lines, Burk said.
“A lot of people don’t pay attention to the moisture content,” he said. “But for the grower, it can be huge.”
He explained that with the weather conditions this year, he expected corn to be harvested with 30 percent moisture. Instead it came off with 16 to 18 percent moisture; a difference of as much as a dollar a bushel.
“When drying costs you an extra $200 an acre, that’s a big number,” Burk said. “Ten percent doesn’t sound like a lot, but you’re starting to talk about a lot of money.”


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