Expecting big things from short corn variety

Stine Seed Company founder, Harry Stine, unintentionally discovered a way to get higher yields from shorter corn planted in narrower rows.

Bigger is not always better, at least where corn plants are concerned.

Stine Seed Co. of Iowa has been developing shorter-statured corn for more than two decades and the results have been surprising.

“Harry Stine, my father, really came up with the concept,” said Myron Stine, president of Stine Seed. “He began corn breeding in 1978.”

Shorter-stature (or high-population) corn plants offer a number of benefits, he said. The first, and most notable, is shorter plant types tend to handle wind events better – a large factor in the Midwest. Shorter stalks also mean less energy devoted to the growth of the stalk. That energy goes to the grain instead. With a shorter stalk, there is less material to process through farm machinery, as well, Stine said.

A side effect of the Stine hybrid plants is smaller tassels. Pollen also takes a lot of energy to develop, Stine said. The tassels also tend to be lower than the top leaves of the plants.

“We don’t specifically select for these traits,” Stine said. “They simply come out of the program that way.”

It wasn’t that his father explicitly set out to engineer shorter statured corn plants. It was the fact that the specific genetics for higher population (thus per-acre yield) did better.

“It wasn’t like a light switch; the material gradually went in that direction,” Stine said. “In a breeding program you are progressively moving the genetic make-up based on criteria you desire.”

By 1981, Harry Stine had begun to do field trials. He conducted these trials in multiple areas in Iowa, his son said.

“He focused primarily on yield, then stand-ability,” Stine said. “He also took a different approach to test plots than other companies.”

Most seed companies would plant their plots and then thin them to a specific population. Stine’s father didn’t follow that method. He planted the plots but did not thin them and the hybrids at higher populations would tend to win and get selected to continue on. This slowly moved many of Stine’s genetics to like higher population environments.

By 1996, Stine Seed Co. was growing hybrid corn that was noticeably shorter than other corn on the market. The Stine hybrid runs from 6 to 8 feet, while other brands run from 9 to 11 feet.

“It’s relative,” Stine said. “Corteva genetics tend to be taller than Bayer, which tend to be taller than Stine.”

In 2011, Stine Seed’s entire breeding program went to a narrower row configuration.

“If you go to 15-inch row spacing, you could plant as high as 55,000 per acre,” Stine said. “We have tested that high; we do not currently recommend producers plant at that level.”

The area in which crops are being raised will also affect the plants per acre rate. In Kansas, a dryland farmer who plants 18,000 ppa, could plant 24,000 with Stine’s high-population corn, he said. Iowa’s higher productive soils allow farmers to plant up to 44,000 ppa.

“If producers maximize their populations and manage the crop properly they could see a 10-15% yield increase with high-population corn,” Stine said. “That would mean increased nitrogen applications and sulfur applications. Some people don’t use sulfur and they should.”

Stine Seed has been planting test plots all across the Corn Belt. They have experts available to assist producers, if they are interested in using their methods.

“We have learned a lot through our testing programs,” Stine said. “But, good farmers know their fields best. We would offer guidelines that farmers would be able to fit to their needs.”

Jon Burleson can be reached at jon.burleson@lee.net.

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