High corn yields, or more consistent corn yields? High yields or more profitable yields? Two good questions for these changing times, experts say.

How do you manage for top yields in highly variable soils, when weather uncertainties, high land costs and falling crop prices have reduced the margin of error? It may require changing goals, suggests Charles Walthall, deputy administrator, Natural Resources and Sustainable Agriculture Systems Research, USDA-ARS.

"Perhaps the absolute maximum yield may not be the goal," he says. "Maybe we need to change our assumptions about how we approach farming. What are our goals, and how sustainable are they? Do they include grain quality as well as quantity? Are they economically viable? Do they enhance the environment and quality of life for rural America and society as a whole?

"Growers today have to decide whether to aim for yield with a high degree of confidence or a yield that with the right conditions will vastly outperform other hybrids," says Pat Steiner, head, corn portfolio, Syngenta North America. "Those two are not going to be the same hybrid. A grower needs the best recommendation for his risk profile."

Assumptions are already changing, he adds; the demand for resilient hybrids versus top-yielding hybrids is growing,” he adds.

Reed Mayberry, senior marketing manager-corn, DuPont Pioneer, reports grower interest in more resilient hybrids has risen as grain prices have fallen. "Growers aren't chasing high yield, but rather yield stability," he says. "That means looking not at what hybrid won yield trials two years out of three, but which one provided the most consistent results."

 

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We should view everything through the interaction of genetics, environment and management practices, Walthall suggests. He acknowledges that this big-picture, multi-focus view runs counter to how science has evolved.

"Where we used to break a big problem into smaller ones and rely on bits and pieces of a solution, we now need to synthesize all the bits and pieces, putting them together and building decision trees - such as if this soil, what variety and what management practices," says Walthall.