Sky-high energy costs mean higher corn drying costs at harvest, and that puts a premium on hybrids that dry down faster.

But the issue is complicated. For example, tough hybrids that can withstand stress and stand upright in the field longer can cut drying costs as much or more than hybrids that simply mature earlier, experts say.

“The risk you have when moving hybrids from north to south or west to east is that the likelihood of stalk rot increases,” says David Bubeck, corn research director for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc. “You have to be careful,” he says. “Drydown is important, but the first priority should be selecting hybrids with high yields, strong stalks and good roots.”

That said, seed companies place more emphasis on developing hybrids that can be harvested at lower moisture levels so growers can reduce drying costs. DNA fingerprinting allows researchers to locate drydown chromosomes, Bubeck says. He thinks new hybrids with high yield, fast drydown and strong standability are coming within five years.

Ben Hable, regional head of corn product development for Syngenta, says hybrids that mature too early can be susceptible to high winds at the end of the growing season, but varieties with long maturities may not be as dry at harvest.

“One of the big things right now,” he says, “is resistance (to pests and stalk rot) that allows plants to stand out there longer.” Because of the importance of pest resistance, “fast drydown is a tricky quality,” Hable says. What growers want, he says, are high-yielding hybrids with low moisture, but it's difficult to accomplish that.

Plants reach physiological maturity — that is, no more sugars are added to the kernel — when a black layer is formed at the base of the kernel. The ideal hybrid has reached black layer and is drying down but the stalk is still green to give it strength, he says.

One thing making it particularly challenging for growers to choose hybrids for fast drydown, Hable adds, is that some are farming over several counties and even states, so planning harvest alone is a difficult challenge.

Further complicating the issue, Hable says, is that one hybrid may be wetter than another hybrid, but it can be reversed a week later. “That's why we need to know hybrids inside and out. Drydown is the most difficult trait there is. It's incredibly complex.”

One thing is certain. Higher energy costs are hitting producers hard. “The cost of drying a bushel of corn to 15% moisture has increased from 3¢/point to more in the range of 4-5¢,” says Bob Starke, corn technology development manager for Monsanto.

One trend he sees occurring as improved hybrids are developed is that growers in the central Corn Belt, for example, can use hybrids developed for the northern Corn Belt and “have equal to if not better yields” than hybrids they had been using. At the same time, they have good resistance to stalk rot and disease. He says that growers between U.S. interstates 80 and 90 may be able to plant 102-day varieties instead of 105 and reduce moisture at harvest by 1.5-2 points. He predicts that within the next two to three years, “we'll see earlier maturing hybrids without sacrificing yield and high standability.”