Many corn producers would welcome a trip to the tropics.

A vacation to those exotic beaches would be nice. But what will likely benefit growers more is a journey through fields of corn bred from tropical or exotic germplasm that provides drought-tolerant corn hybrids that can yield with less water.

Whether it's an irrigated cornfield in Nebraska or West Texas, or dryland corn in Illinois, hybrids that can withstand a reduction in rainfall or ground water are needed. That's where an entity like the USDA-backed Germplasm Enhancement for Maize (GEM) program is vital for growers.

“Whether you're looking for extreme drought tolerance response or other traits in a corn hybrid, the GEM program is good for the corn industry,” says David Bubeck, research director-product management for Pioneer in Johnston, IA.

GEM is made up of some 20 private companies like Pioneer and close to 40 public research facilities involved in corn breeding and research. Wenwei Xu, a Texas A&M corn breeder in Lubbock, is among the team of university and industry researchers involved in the program. He says GEM is basically a “massive effort to develop commercially attractive hybrids” that contain germplasm from outside the U.S.

Traits that provide shorter-season lines requiring less water or lines that help dryland corn withstand devastation during drier than normal summers are welcomed by growers. Dumas, TX, farmer David Ford is among those who are taking advantage of select seed in an era of sky-high natural gas, irrigation and fuel prices.

“We try to shorten the growing season by planting some 104-105-day hybrids that help us save two weeks of irrigation,” says Ford, who farms with his brother, Donald, and son, Kevin. “That's a savings of $10-20/acre. I'm glad seed companies are looking at developing more drought-tolerant hybrids as well as shorter-season corn.”

More “stress tolerance” is another term for better drought tolerance, and Ford, a member of the Texas Corn Producers Board, is seeing greater emphasis in this area from seed companies and corn breeders like Xu. “Growers who suffered from the drought in parts of the Midwest this summer are looking for better stress tolerance in corn just like we are here in irrigation country,” he says.

Xu, who has seen drought-tolerant studies among his major emphasis programs through A&M, works with other corn breeders from the Corn Belt and southern universities involved in the GEM program. “GEM has helped us blend tropic, sub-tropic, exotic and conventional lines to develop more drought-tolerant corn,” he says, noting that A&M will have four new drought-tolerant lines released to commercial breeders in the next two years.

Pioneer and other seed companies can use this and other germplasm, as well as that from their own breeding program, to develop hybrids for today's growing environment.

“We are pursuing a gene discovery that in effect would provide a gene or genes for drought resistance under reduced moisture regime,” says Bubeck, who periodically attends GEM field days from Iowa to Texas. “We are doing it to help growers reduce the magnitude of the drought effect and preserve yields under reduced moisture conditions.”

Regional drought conditions in 2005 saw some bleak yield forecasts in mid-summer. Network news crews found parched fields in more than one Iowa or Illinois county. But overall, Bubeck says farmers experienced less reduction in yields than they would have had during a drought in the late 1980s.

“The individual farmer who got hit severely may not believe my explanation,” says Bubeck. “But those growers who didn't face extreme drought conditions still saw yields in the 130-150 bu. range. They were quite surprised. One grower told me he found it ‘difficult to raise a crop less than 140 bu./acre,’ where he used to yield 100 bu. or less (in a dry year).

“A lot of things can go wrong and they still get 130-140 bu.,” Bubeck adds.

GEM has helped with that transformation, due mainly to cooperation among dozens of entities. “The GEM technical steering group includes a mix of private and public cooperators,” says Bubeck. “The Pioneers and Monsantos are involved, and so are small and medium size (seed companies).”

The development of shorter-season corn enabled growers to reduce their irrigation needs. Those types of varieties were developed primarily for the western Corn Belt and parts of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Some of that technology is being used in programs to develop more stress tolerant lines belt-wide.

“We're looking for better traits for hybrids that require less water and have less reduction in yield in reduced moisture situations,” says Bubeck, adding that GEM helps the efforts by Pioneer and other companies to bring better hybrids to growers.

Ford sees greater biotech influence in these types of hybrids.

“There will be more effort to isolate genes that can provide more stress tolerance for corn,” he says. “One problem we see with short-season corn is that it has less time to recoup after a major dry period or if enough irrigation is not available. We need better yields from our short-season corn to make it a true alternative to intermediate and full-season hybrids.”

For further information on GEM and its collaborators, visit its Web site at www.iastate.edu/~usda-gem.