CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Corn breeding efforts have not kept pace with the fast-growing organic farming sector, and a new program kicked off this year that teams farmers, researchers and consumers to develop new hybrids.
Under the four-year program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture invested nearly $2 billion toward the University of Illinois project. Farmers will help test corn germplasm developed at the U of I and the Mandaamin Institute in Wisconsin, and consumers will give their opinions on the quality of the grain and products made with each line of organic corn.
Also partnering in the project is U of I’s Agroecology and Sustainable Agricultural Program and Kelly Tillage System.
One of those on-farm corn breeding nurseries was featured in a July 19 field day at Wyatt Muse’s farm near Champaign. A second field day is slated for Sept. 13 at East Troy, Wisconsin.
Carmen Ugarte, U of I Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences research specialist and project leader, said planners had three specific objectives when the project began.
- To strengthen local and regional organic foods systems by increasing the ability to use organic management, by using on-farm selection and testing, and building a participatory network.
- To improve organic corn germplasm to satisfy end-user’s preferences and spawn a new market.
- To understand plant-soil interactions and their contributions to plant health and grain quality.
The need for ramping up corn breeding for organic production became evident in the numbers.
The most recent USDA agriculture census conducted in 2014 found total sales of organic products reached $5.5 billion, a 72 percent increase since 2008.
Illinois had 205 and Indiana 420 certified organic farms in 2016, according to USDA survey results released in Sept. 2017, compared to 137 and 159, respectively, five years earlier. There were 9,140 certified organic farms nationwide in 2011 and 14,217 by 2016.
Agronomists, soil scientists, farmers and corn breeders are participating, as well as a component of the U of I’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition that will look at quality.
The project includes a participatory network that facilitates the exchange of needs and wants among producers, researchers, seed producers and end users.
On-farm testing and replicated trials are utilized to screen materials for organic growing conditions and also to study weed and nutrient interactions with plant and soil health.
Strip-trials are being conducted in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa. Nurseries and breeding plots are at the Muse farm near Champaign and also conducted by Walter Goldstein, Nokomis Gold Seed Co., Elkhorn, Wisconsin, and Kevin Montgomery, Montgomery Consulting, Maroa, Illinois.
“Six to 10 different cultivars are used in strip trials. We provide the seed and the farmer plants it. We look at agronomic performance under the conditions that the farmers’ manage their fields. We keep collaborating and getting data from the farmers,” Ugarte said.
“We’re also fortunate that Jack Erisman of Pana, Illinois, and Joel Gruver of Roseville, Illinois, were brave enough to let us manipulate some trials, some experiments on their farms.
“We have established two replicated trials in their fields that are naturally rotated into corn. We’re following the rotation so that in a given year we’re going to have this plot and the move to another plot the next year when it’s rotated from soybeans to corn. They are manipulating the nitrogen inputs with high, intermediate and low rates of chicken manure applied. We also look at weed pressure.”
“Plant breeding has been very effective in increasing yields of crops like corn under our high-input systems, and is there a way that we can also use those strategies to improve varieties and have them perform very high under organic conditions?” said Claire Luby, University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Horticulture research associate and executive director of Open Source Seeds.
Farmers’ input to breeders also is an essential piece of this program.
“If you’re a farmer, what characteristics would help corn grow better on your farm, perform better, yield better? What quality characteristics might you be looking for in that plant that can either expand what markets are available to sell to or have new uses?” Luby said.
“As the organic sector grows, I think more and more people are thinking about how to develop varieties specifically for farmers using organic production methods.
“The unique thing about this project is that we also have some soil scientists and agronomists working on this project, too. So, it’s not just thinking about it from the plant breeding perspective, but also from the soil health perspective. So, what combination of rotation and nutrient management do we need to also optimize those different varieties?”
The in-field nursery on the Muse farm features multiple breeding projects, including inbred lines that are developed to breed hybrids and open-pollinated varieties for creating certain characteristics.
Walter Goldstein, Mandaamin Institute founder, a Wisconsin-based corn breeding establishment that also has winter nurseries in Puerto Rico and Chile, gave examples of some of the research he is conducting.
Mandaamin breeds unique high-yielding corn hybrids with more methionine, lysine and carotene to increase the value of the grain for feed. The breeders also develop hybrids with greater nitrogen efficiency to reduce nitrogenous fertilizers and increase the yield of protein per acre.
“We’re also breeding in these trials for nitrogen fixation with the help of bacteria so that the plants will be even more independent of fertilization,” Goldstein said.
“The third thing that we’re breeding into our corn is with cross incompatible corn to naturally stop the contamination of seed from genetically-modified corn pollen. We’ve been breeding that trait into our high methionine and nitrogen efficient corn.
“There are a number of organic farmers who have been pressuring us to bring out. The corn contains 30 percent more methionine than regular corn. Methionine is a critical ingredient for organic poultry.”
Martin Bohn, U of I Department of Crop Sciences corn breeder and geneticist and co-principal investigator, noted this project will provide the scientific insights needed to design cutting-edge breeding strategies for the development of cultivars wanted in the organic market.
“To be successful, each breeding program needs well-defined objectives, and in the organic marketplace, it isn’t only about yield. Processing and nutritional quality are of great importance for the consumer, and the farmer needs cultivars that compete well with weeds, are resistant to pests and diseases and tolerate stresses like drought, heat and low nutrient availability,” Bohn said.
All materials tested under field conditions also will be evaluated for quality and performance of the end products. Corn will be processed into several different types of food products, such as corn bread or tortilla chips, at the Pilot Processing Plant on the U of I campus and then tested by consumers and researchers.
Tom C. Doran can be reached at 815-780-7894 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at: @AgNews_Doran.