Corn is an important staple crop worldwide. It’s no wonder that people look for ways to increase its production. Since the early days of farming, man has attempted to unlock corn’s genetic potential using various techniques. Joining Todd Steinacher is AgriGold’s regional agronomist and certified crop advisor, Kevin Gale. Kevin and Todd discuss the different ways people are trying to bring out corn’s true potential and how to take on the challenges of modern agriculture. Tune in to today’s episode and pick up some great insights on improving your corn yields.
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Unlocking Your Corn’s Genetic Potential With Kevin Gale
I get to be Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny by bringing you our guest speaker, Kevin Gale. He knows more about corn genetics than anybody I can think of. This guy can walk into a pre-commercial research plot and take about two steps within a given hybrid, within about four minutes or less will say, “Yep,” or, “Nope,” if a hybrid can be advanced. I would like to officially introduce our guest, Kevin Gale. He is a certified crop advisor and a regional agronomist with agriculture covering North Central Illinois. Welcome to the show.
Kevin, welcome to the show.
Todd, it’s great to be here.
Before we dive into our conversation, how about you take a few moments and tell us about yourself and your family.
I’m Kevin Gale. I’m a Regional Agronomist for AgriGold in Northern Illinois. I’ve been with the company for about 22 years already. I reside in Galva, Illinois. I have three daughters and a lovely wife. We farm a little bit as well on the side.
Kevin, how about you tell us about the territory that you cover and any challenges that you face this season, or you’ve seen progress in the last couple of years where you’d advise growers on how to make high-yielding decisions?
I cover the Northern part of Illinois, an area from the Quad Cities down to Champaign, Illinois all the way up to the state line. We’ve had some great yields over the last few years but we also have a lot of challenges. Some of the challenges that we endure year-in and year-out would be, number one, cool soils. Drainage is a concern we have had with excessive rains over the last several years. We do have some disease pressure as well. We start thinking about new diseases like tar spots and Fusarium because of wet feet. We grow quite a bit of corn-on-corn in Northern Illinois that can lead to some other additional challenges when you think about compaction, root restrictions, and even nutrient availability. There’s a variety of things that go on across Northern Illinois that can be a challenge and it’s important to address some of those challenges or yield-limiting factors to maximize the genetics we have.
Over the last several years, AgriGold has been part of the sticky trap process or projects across Illinois in the greater Corn Belt trapping and monitoring corn rootworm, beetles, and pressures. Your territory is probably the heart of rootworms for years. Maybe some pockets have backed off but from your standpoint, for the last couple of years, what does that rootworm population look like for your territory?
We’ve been blessed with a lot of heavy rains, saturated soils during rootworm hatch for the last couple of years. That’s allowed the corn rootworm pressure to decline in a lot of our locations but in 2020, we started seeing more of an uptick in corn rootworm pressure. That’s one thing that we are concerned especially on the long-term corn-on-corn acres. That’s where we’re seeing a heavier pressure from corn rootworm but sticky traps are a great way to go out, try to dial in what our needs are for traits for the following year. Scouting is going to be important going forward to make sure we’re protecting our corn crops, especially in long-term corn-on-corn.
You referenced how your territory is heavy corn-on-corn. It can always cause issues from a nitrogen standpoint. In your greater area, what are some recommendations you give to producers to offset the lack of nitrogen issues and have a good season-long supply of nitrogen?
When you start thinking about corn-on-corn nutrient deficiencies possible, managing that nitrogen is going to be important. The most economical and efficient way to manage nitrogen is by having a split applied approach. We still need to have a good supply of nitrogen upfront to help offset the immobilization of nitrogen due to the carbon penalty, but we also have to have enough later in the season to finish out grain fill with some of these genetics. There are a lot of differences in genetics by the timing of nitrogen. Nitrogen is one of those things that we need to pay attention to to maximize yields in the long run.
In the last couple of years, I was involved in some trials with some growers on understanding grain fill and how much yield is left. As we get to three quarter milk line, some of those trials yielded showed that at three quarter milk line, there’s still 20%, 25% yield that’s left to be converted from sugar to starch. A lot of that comes back to proper nutrition, nitrogen on the backside to make all that work. If you think about your part of the world with some of the wetter soils and some of the challenges of heavy corn-on-corn, nitrogen has got to be top of the list from a management standpoint to maximize these genetic potentials.
I know a lot of growers like the one-and-done approach. Those days are numbered. We need to get away from the one-and-done, weed-and-feed programs. If you’re trying to reach that next plateau for maximum yield, we got to have that season-long nitrogen availability but also being efficient with that product is important too. Banding nitrogen, getting that product as close to the row as possible allows us to have a high enough concentration to fill that crop season long. The other thing we have to deal with, as far as yield-limiting factors, is compaction or root restriction. We have quite a bit of that. That can limit our uptake of nitrogen later in the season, especially in dry years. We had a lot of wet scenarios last couple of years but for planting in wet conditions, we restrict our root development. We’re ultimately going to restrict our nutrient uptake late in the season as well.
When I think about a corn plant, you think of all the roots as all these straws sticking into a big punchbowl. To me, the more roots we have, the more fibrous systems hook to them. They’re larger root systems. When that plant is actively sucking up all those juices and nutrients, the more juice that can get into the corn plant is going to help it but it also goes back to the concentration. If for every pole it’s having, it has more or less nitrogen within those poles that much less or more nitrogen is entering the plant. I’ve had conversations with growers who maybe have used a starter fertilizer, in-furrow or 2×2, specifically from a nitrogen standpoint. Maybe there’s enough in there to tickle the plant but not enough to see a big yield difference. In a lot of cases, we are putting nitrogen out there, but it goes back to the concentration in and we’re not getting the volume that we need out there that that plant desperately needs early on.
Changing gears slightly, Kevin. As we think about genetic potential, it will be specific from a corn standpoint. The maximum yield potential for corn is still always evolving, and that the biggest potential for yield is before you even open the bag or box. The moment we stick that corn seed into the soil, Mother Nature is going to sit in a critter to come and destroy it, whether it be a disease standpoint, a cool wet soil that’s going to feed on it, an insect that comes or diseases later in the season. Heavy rainfall is going to move nitrogen out of the root zones to take it up. All those pieces play into dinging yield. What are some things that we need to be looking at to maximize genetic potential?
There is a lot of potential in the genetics we plant. We start looking at yield trend lines. We’re increasing yield by over two bushels per year and a lot of that has to do with increased management that we’ve been talking about but also there’s a lot of increase due to genetic advancements as well. If everything is perfect, we can raise high yields. When you think about the world record corn yield is at 616 bushels. There are a lot of bushels left on the line there.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a perfect growing condition, typically here in the Midwest where we’re planting corn. We have a lot of unique environments, a lot of situations based on the geography or environment that we plant corn in, and we can see some dramatic differences between products in these specific environments. That’s one reason why there are many products in a corn company’s hybrid lineup because there’s a need for those products based on their fit.
To the average person, corn is corn. It’s a drive up and down the road, but as you and I and other agronomists and genetic enthusiasts drive up and down the roads, we started looking at different tassels, leaf structures or how a field is handling dry down or standability. From that standpoint, since there are many products out there, what does that background look like? How do some of these products come to the market and we know where they can be placed and how we need to manage them?
The first thing we’ve got to think about is what our yield-limiting factors are. Once we understand what the yield-limiting factors are, we can start choosing genetics that can fit those certain environments. When you look at an aggregate perspective, there are a lot of different genetics available on the marketplace but they can be categorized into genetic families. Typically, those hybrids in those categories are going to react similarly in a specific situation, whether it be a poorly drained situation or a heavy disease situation. Some hybrids are just better than others. I talked about hybrid families. It takes a lot of time to try to figure out how these families work because the seasons are different. If you have an idea of how products relate to each other, over time and over seasons, you have a better ability to place products appropriately for maximum success year in year out. That’s what AgriGold does well. It’s trying to place products appropriately to minimize risk and maximize outcomes.
When you look at corn products in the field, those outside of the Ag sector probably just sees corn. From an agronomic perspective, from a grower perspective, you definitely see there are some differences in hybrids, and how they react to certain scenarios. Not all hybrids are created equal. There’s a variety of things we need to look at, whether it’ll be planting density response, how the product emerges or what the vigor is under cool, wet conditions. What about leaf structures, root structures? All those things play a part as far as performance, but if we know what those differences are and group products into families, we can help the outcome no matter where you’re at, whether you’re in the Western plains or the heart of Illinois under high yield potential.
You referenced some hybrid families and if we go back far enough, a lot of these original genetic families or lineage of hybrids and inbreds originated where they’re geographically bred originally. A lot of these came from the university systems, and then over time, it has migrated into individual companies owning some germplasm. If you could walk us down the path of genetic families, what brought us to these different families that we as AgriGold get to work with every day?
We started working with or classifying products into genetic families twenty-some years ago. We’re fortunate to have a nice array of genetics but they all acted differently, whether it be the female bringing certain characteristics or the male bringing certain characteristics. Placing those products under certain families allowed us to categorize hybrids. A lot of the backgrounds of hybrids are based on a university program or a state Ag program. You talk about genetic families like Ohio43, Ohio7, Lancaster or Iodent. Those are all genetic backgrounds that we can place products under to get a better understanding of how they react to environments. For instance, family A, AgriGold to be in Ohio43 backgrounds and products like 65-44. Understanding the characteristics of a family A, being a product with a strong need for fertility, nitrogen, potassium, liking water, poorly drained soils, or bottom ground. Those are characteristics that help us place those products for success.
Another example will be Lancaster or a family B genetic. These are corns that have a lot of ear flex, have good disease tolerance, have more of a pendulum leaf structure. They respond to lower populations and can canopy quite well in lower population scenarios. If you’re trying to maximize water, you can plant lower populations and still have top in yield. Root structure on a family B would be coarse. It goes deep in the soil and can access more moisture under those low populations. We’ve seen that in the past, especially in the higher heat, drier situations, or if you’re in the western Corn Belt, these family B’s do extremely well. Another example would be an Iodent background. These are typically your semi-erect or upright leaf structure, products that respond to higher populations. They typically have heavier test weight, can handle some stresses. Solidified nitrogen would also be a good approach to maximize the family F hybrid. They flower early and they dry down relatively early as well. Those are a couple of examples of families and how you help classify hybrids.
Let’s dive into a family A. You referenced something that has a strong affinity for nutrients and where I see this work, this product works where we do have good organic matter, where we are splitting nitrogen. If a grower is looking at plot data, and not understanding management practices that went into it so they could emulate these management practices, they could almost be grabbing a product that may or may not work for their farms or fields, their management practices. How do you evaluate these products from a recommendation standpoint?
We plant a lot of plots from a company perspective. We can go out there and dial in how these products respond based on the environment in that certain location but it’s having that idea of the genetic backgrounds, how they’ve performed in the past, and based on the phenotypes, and flowering dates. All those things come into play, put all those characteristics together, and by knowing that, you can make the right recommendation.
You referenced on a family B how that root type is very coarse and it can penetrate down? What were some scenarios where you think that product would shine or situations probably where we need to back it off from being in a particular field?
When you start thinking about a family B, the flex-ear nature, the root structure being coarse, deep-rooted product, it probably will not excel in a poorly-drained situation. If we prefer better drainage, tile drainage, a rolling ground where water can get away, you let that product flex out to maximize yield. If you have a lot of wet weather, saturated soils, and these roots cannot penetrate, you typically give up yield and overall performance. Also, disease tolerance is important to consider here as well. Fusarium is widely distributed across Illinois. You see a lot of that, especially on wet feet scenarios where a product can be infected early under wet feet. You see the plant shut down later in the season when it encompasses drought stress or you have root restrictions. That would be a fusarium environment. This would be a product we probably don’t want to put in that heavy fusarium situation.
When we think about roots, you referenced coarse roots, and there are a couple of different structures of roots out there, can you talk about the different types of roots that growers don’t know that are out there? How do you determine this in a given plan?
Digging up a lot of roots, you can see physical differences between genetic families. Family B, if you have no root restrictions, you don’t have wet feet, those roots can tend to be fairly large and grow straight down. A family F on the other hand would be more of a fibrous root, a lot more lateral branching. A lot of roots are confined to the upper soil profile. They do well or improved in wet scenarios compared to a family B. However, you get a drought situation, you have all your routes in the upper profile, they may not be as effective as we saw maybe in 2012 when we had a drought scenario back then.
You described two different types of root systems. One, fibers that are not as deep but more branching is going to be in the upper zone of the profile. The coarse one, family B. It’s going to be tapping into deeper soil profiles. As it relates to a nitrogen standpoint, how would you manage nitrogen on a family F of that restructure versus a family B in that restructure?
We start thinking about nitrogen, family B is a little more forgiving. They’re going to utilize a lot of nitrogen earlier in the season. They fill grain quickly. They have those deep roots that can access nitrogen a little bit deeper if we tend to get off hot and dry. Those Iodents typically need to have efficient bands or nitrogen close to that root system to maximize yield. They’re also heavier test weight so it’s going to use more nitrogen to build that kernel later in the season. Placement and timing are important when we start thinking about the different genetic families to maximize potential.
You referenced in years past, certain hybrids handle wet feet or don’t handle wet feet. Let’s say they’re still within a family F or an Iodent background, and when we look at that standpoint, is it one, doesn’t like the moisture early on because the roots themselves are not enough mass and it can’t breathe? Is it more from a disease standpoint on the male or female that came into it had a weak disease package on the root? Is it both or can it be one or the other?
There’s a combination there. We need to have root development. If you know wet feet, that root just doesn’t develop for it to function fully. The second part is tolerance to disease. Those roots crown rots like fusarium, they’ll show up on certain products that don’t handle wet feet first.
As we dive into understanding more on genetic backgrounds, one thing that I find fascinating is some of the structures can be different. You drive down through the road, everybody might think corn is corn but there can be a large difference in tassel types. How would somebody know if they’re potentially in A, F or B field by looking at tassels if they’re driving up down the road or looking at a plot?
That’s the beauty of looking at plots. You can see genetic differences between hybrids. When you look at a family F corn or an Iodent background, you typically have a semi-erect leaf structure with a tassel that’s profuse, more upright, shorter branches that typically flower early for maturity. They will flower fairly quick, drop pollen fairly quick. The family B category is going to have a long center spike that tends to droop, less branches and tends to flower a little bit longer during the pollination process. That’s the difference between those two families. There are some differences between family A and family H as well but those are two dramatic differences between the family F and family B genetics.
I can remember the first time I was walking to a family B with you and you were showing me that long, middle branch that comes up has a hook over that was called the shepherd’s hook. It’s a good indication of where you’re at. Understanding these tasseled types of always coming good, walking side by sides or trying to figure out where a split in the field is because for our standpoint if we know what the tassel continually looks like because we do walk a lot of plots a week, we can typically find where that split in the field is. If for some reason, it wasn’t captured with GPS from a planting standpoint. All those characteristics play in and help out.
They also do help try to categorize products, too.
You referenced a couple of times on leaf architecture, leaf angle. You referenced some that had more of a droopy, big canopy to them. We’re starting to see some hybrids with a little bit more of an upright leaf structure to them. What are your thoughts on just leaf structures and canopies in general?
Leaf structures get down to the leaf area index. How much sun can this crop capture? Now, photosynthesis is very important to yield. It’s up to us to manage our products to maximize leaf area, so if you’re going to plant high populations of an upright-leaf-structured product, you can capture more sunlight. If you have a horizontal pendulum-style leaf, you can capture more sunlight at a lower population. It plays back and forth on canopy closure, preserving water as well as maximizing nutrient uptake as well.
In each reference, leaf area index, for one, it’s important to build that leaf area index but the other piece is to retain it. When we start thinking about plant health and diseases in crop rotations to minimize the amount of disease going up within the plant, we just built all these solar panels, then a disease comes in and starts knocking them out one by one. If you lose 1 or 2 solar panels, it’s probably not a big deal, but if we start losing a mass amount of them, that’s where we’re going to start seeing this plant struggle during the warm days, the warm nights, the grain field to take care of that last three-quarters of a milk line.
It’s one thing to build the canopy but then we have to manage it season-long as well, not only from a disease standpoint. Diseases can blow in. We’ve had some rust in the last couple of years. Gray leaf spot is always jumping up, which is something that some hybrids are more vulnerable than others. How do you evaluate products as they’re coming out from a disease standpoint? How is that recommendation made? What needs to be sprayed? It probably needs to stay in that rotated acre to minimize the spores that are in the field. From your standpoint, as new products come out, how do you evaluate that?
It’s great to have a plot system where you can compare genetic backgrounds, how they handle specific diseases. A factory is important to maximize yield, and the whole goal is to have a clean factory season-long to maximize that grain field. However, we also have to deal with diseases like Southern rust in the South, tar spot in the North, potentially Northern corn leaf wide, or GLS as well. We need to manage around that by looking at plots, taking good-detailed notes, and trying to look for management practices that allow us to fulfill a healthy factory as late in the season as possible.
For my area, tar spot is one of those diseases that we’re concerned about a year in year out. That’s a new disease that was first introduced into Northern Illinois in 2015, but we haven’t had a significant yield reduction from tar spot, except for 2018. Understanding the environment, we had in 2018 across Northern Illinois, especially in that Route 30 corridor up to Route 20 when we had 20 inches of rainfall in that May to June timeframe. We lost a lot of nitrogen. These plants were stressed quite a bit and because of those factors, tar spot was able to overwhelm these plants and shut the canopy down early. We can see the same thing with Southern rust in the Southern Corn Belt or Mid-South. Managing around diseases, whether it be applying fungicides or making sure we have a sound nitrogen program, will allow us to maximize our yields in these areas of higher disease pressure.
As we started thinking about different hybrids and placement years ago, we used to categorize hybrids as offensive and defensive. Do you still think that most hybrids can fall into one of those categories? I see hybrids that you would think, based on how they react, they handle that defensive acre but yet they have some good top and yield. I don’t think hybrids fit in these categories like they used to. They can have a good primary area but yet they can flex in some other areas.
These products can perform in a lot of scenarios, as long as we manage them appropriately. We’ve got a lot better management practices over the last few years. We got a lot of good equipment available to maximize these different products but again, we got to realize what our yield-limiting factors are and address those to maximize those genetics.
In the last couple of years, even I had some customers that we did the tissue sample projects with, and a lot of growers assume that the fertility program they’re working on was good. They were doing a good job front-loading but when I go out and evaluate fields mid-grain fill, I can start seeing the plants firing. You take these tissue samples and the ones that the season-long needs, they’re dropping off too fast after pollination. Growers had thought their program was up to snuff but what some of these projects have helped us do is try to identify some of these limiting factors. It’s down to the point where we don’t one shot-and-go with nitrogen. The box is checked and we have to just do a gut check ourselves. Do we want nitrogen as check the box one and go, or are we striving for higher yields and higher profits from that? That’s something that I’ve taken away. You’ve done tissue sample projects over the last several years. What some stories that you can shine from that so we can make better decisions?
We’re trying to do the tissue sampling program that we’ve developed over the last years trying to capture as much information on when we are deficient in a specific nutrient. It’s not always nitrogen. It could be potassium or sulfur but pulling these tissue samples throughout the year at different GDU accumulations allows us to find those windows where we may be short of a specific nutrient. There may be differences in genetics on that, especially on the tail end, when you start thinking about the need for late-season fertility for grain fill. Obviously, there are two times during the year that’s important. That rapid growth phase is important for nutrient uptake. There’s also a high need for nutrient availability during grain fill itself. Having the availability of all nutrients will help maximize yield going forward. Those tissue tests allow us to figure out where those sweet spots are that we need to focus on.
What’s challenging is you do these season-long deals and trials, and you hope that once you quantify all the information, it’s this big button that says, “This is what to do.” Sometimes, I don’t know if you’ve experienced this but it asked more questions than answers, which allows us to dive deeper into it. It can be so overwhelming, all this information that’s like a treasure map. You find the X on the spot and it says, “Go to the next one, and then the next one.” For a grower, trying to maximize these yield concepts and contest, there are a lot of failures, and I mean that from a respectful way. We have to fail a lot of times before we finally figure out what that silver bullet is or limiting factor in and it just takes a lot of time.
The world of Agronomy continues to evolve. Year-in, year-out, there’s something new to learn or new to try, and we’re not going to get better if we sit on the sidelines and wait for something to happen from Mother Nature. We need to try to address as many factors as we can to get to that next level. As commodity prices continue to climb, it’s important to try to capture every last bushel, especially as inputs fly along with it.
I do want to dive into one last topic, and that is the PCR program that AgriGold is involved in evaluating products and I know you’re involved in that team. If you could just give us an idea of what the PCR is and how this helps you and the other agronomist in Cass’s help make growers good profitable decisions.
The PCR program is our testing program from research. AgReliant conducts these for us across the Midwest. We have a set of products that we test in multiple environments across the entire Corn Belt at different zones of maturities, but it gives us replicated data within an area to observe these products in these different environments. Our data is more sound by having replicated data and looking at it across the Corn Belt. It gives us a better idea of, number one, hybrid yield, number two, disease tolerance and adaptability.
We’re able to see phenotypically what the differences are but also how these products fit in our lineup to replace our products. We’re excited to have this PCR testing program that allows our salesmen to go in and see products that are maybe 1, 2, 3 years away from commercialization but also see a lot of these products compared to our lineup as well as competitors. Overall, it’s a great testing program that’s moving us forward with new products for our customers.
As we move forward, testing is crucial because there’s so much new germplasm coming out and in some cases, it might be okay. We’re going to throw as much at the wall as we can and see what sticks and move forward with it. That’s where testing comes in and you reference that AgriGold ourselves does many plots throughout the season. Looking at new hybrids, we’re evaluating traits within hybrids. We’re looking at seed treatments. We’re trying to bring out anything that we know that can work and we’re not going to bring something out to bring it out but it’s got to wow us so we can say, “Yes, this is sellable to a farmer within territories that we work in, and it’s something that’s actually going to bring them value.”
It’s a place where we can look at multiple sources of genetics. We can bring out superior products for a specific location and fit those needs that our customers and salesmen desire.
As we wind down this episode, I would like to see if you have any parting words or recommendations for growers as they embark on this season or you know future seasons as they strive to be yield masters.
One thing from my perspective is to continue to try new things. There’s a lot of new equipment on the marketplace, starter fertilizer, down pressure on the planner. Those types of things are all equipment that we can try to maximize the yields and provide a better environment for our crop but let’s not stay stagnant. Continue to look forward because yield is important. We have more yield to gain by paying attention to the details.
From a yield masters journey standpoint, what I can take away from this episode and your insight is about understanding the limiting factors of a given field and in-season. It goes down to understanding root development, drainage where it’s a problem, properly placing hybrids, and knowing some of the strengths and weaknesses to them. At the end of the day, we’ve got to manage nitrogen from a season-long standpoint to ultimately capture more yield during green fill. We can’t sit on the sidelines and wait for Mother Nature to present us with an ideal growing season. We must do what we can to capture yield when we can. You referenced several concepts and equipment pieces that are in the marketplace.
Markets are favorable in this season going forward. We need to capture as much as we can to help justify a lot of things we’re doing and to advance the overall operation. It’s important that from ourselves for a plot standpoint, most plots are done in cooperation with growers on their fields. They’re planting a lot of them. I would be remiss if we didn’t thank all the farmers out there who allow us to partner with them on these trials. At the end of the day, that allows us to get a better insight on where these products need to go just to make better decisions for every farmer we touch and work with. With that, I would like to close out. Kevin, thanks again for coming and all the great insight. We wish everybody a good and prosperous growing season. Thank you.
About Kevin Gale
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