MCR&PC supported research: Breeding corn that can succeed in the north

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Central and northwest Minnesota used to be dominated by wheat, but northern farmers have watched the success of corn in southern Minnesota and noted the strength of the market, thanks to the successes of groups like Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council in its work supporting the growth of ethanol and other value-added uses of corn.

These northern farmers are saying we want that, too. Even though a few companies have stations in central ND and MN, the number of acres is not high enough to justify their investment to these areas but will be soon. An NDSU breeding program will make sure this happens by providing short-season cold tolerant products to them.

And thanks to MCR&PC supported research into hybrids designed with the special needs of northern and central Minnesota in mind, they will see more and more success with the golden crop.

Prof. Marcelo Carena of North Dakota State University in Fargo, continues to be a leading figure in the development of short-season cold tolerant corn for corn production in central and northern Minnesota.

One of the factors limiting the profitability of corn production in these regions is that most hybrids are bred elsewhere and don’t often succeed in terms of producing a fully mature, high test-weight grain that is low enough in moisture at harvest time, Carena said. He was interviewed during MN Ag EXPO, where he was one of dozens of MCR&PC supported researchers who presented posters about their research projects to those attending the gathering.

Carena’s work in 2011 took 3,157 different corn inbreds and screened them by growing them under controlled cold-stress conditions to evaluate their potential for northern U.S. environments. The professor can produce three crops per season, thanks to access to a nursery in southern Argentina, where their growing season is in the winter months and harvest takes place in the northern hemisphere’s spring. The process to create a new hybrid thus takes four years instead of 12.

Another key to Carena’s innovative work is the inclusion of exotic and tropical corn strains. Carena notes that the genes for cold tolerance could come from plants found anywhere—it’s a matter of subjecting them to cold stress and seeing which inbreds succeed in terms of grain-filling, moisture content and early maturity. Carena noted that his program represents the northernmost corn breeding program in North America (Canadian programs are actually located at lower latitudes than Fargo).

Carena has conducted northern corn breeding for 13 years and has produced 18 corn lines, eight populations and five hybrids out of hundreds of thousands of original lines since he began his corn-breeding program at NDSU. Minnesota Corn is contributing to the effort now, in addition to funding from North Dakota Corn Utilization Council —the boost in resources will speed the process of finding successful short-maturity hybrids that can work in central and northern Minnesota, according to Carena.

“It’s been my goal for Minnesota’s corn organizations to reach out and serve members and potential members in central and northern Minnesota,” said John Mages, president of MCGA and a farmer in Belgrade, Minnesota, in Stearns County. He said, “These regions will be a key growth area for us in the near future as corn becomes a more popular farm product farther north. Supporting this breeding program is a way to help corn producers in these regions share in the success that corn growers have enjoyed in the southern tier for decades now.”

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