Evaluating the Potential of Open-Pollinated Field Corn for Growers in the Northeast

Final Report for LNE02-171

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2002: $119,466.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $61,870.00
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Margaret Smith
Dept. Plant Breeding & Genetics, Cornell Univ.
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Project Information


The goal of this project was to identify those open-pollinated (OP) field corn varieties that are most competitive with commercial corn hybrids and to identify any varieties with specialty uses, with a primary focus on northeastern U.S. growing environments. Although most commercially marketed corn varieties are hybrids, several OP varieties suited for the northeast remain in production and are commercially available. Additional populations from recurrent selection programs at land grant universities are still available and perform well, with some yielding only 15% to 20% less than commercial hybrids of similar maturity. Five groups of growers are potential beneficiaries of this project: 1) farmers growing corn in marginal environments with limited yield potential, 2) farmers who want to become more self-reliant by producing their own seed corn, 3) growers who need organically-produced seed corn that is uncontaminated by genetically engineered pollen to meet organic certification requirements, 4) farmers interested in specialty markets who could use OP varieties that possess unique traits, and 5) Native American growers interested in preserving and increasing their traditional OP corn varieties for economic, social, and cultural reasons. In NY and NH, approximately 200,000 acres of corn are grown in marginal areas, much of it supporting dairy farms with fewer than 100 cows. Of the 1200 farms that meet these characteristics, we believe that 10% would be interested in OP corn and are not currently growing it. In addition there are about 80 organic corn growers and a small group of Native American growers (15-25) in NY and NH who already grow or would like to grow traditional OP corn varieties. A significant but undetermined number of farmers are interested in specialty market opportunities.


This project evaluated open-pollinated (OP) field corn in New York and New Hampshire (the latter in Years 1 and 2 only), to identify varieties that are most competitive with commercial corn hybrids and those with potential for specialty uses. Our goal was to interest at least 40 growers in the region who are not currently using OP varieties in growing OP corn for economic reasons, feed quality, self reliance, specialty uses, and/or cultural and social considerations. In this project, we targeted small dairy farmers on marginal lands, organic producers, specialty crop producers, and Native American growers. OP varieties may be particularly attractive in more marginal agricultural areas of the northeast, where yield differences between OP varieties and hybrids may be more than offset by the reduction in input costs when growers supply their own seed or purchase less costly OP variety seed.

Evaluations included a combination of large-scale strip trials with a few OP varieties that preliminary data had shown to be most agronomically promising and small (1/500 acre) plot trials with as many OP varieties as we could acquire, either from commercial seed companies (large and small/local) or from public sector corn breeders. Both silage and grain yield and quality were evaluated in the strip trials; grain yield and agronomic characters were evaluated in the small plot trials. All trials were grown at two to four locations in each project year, including both experiment station and on-farm locations. In addition to silage and grain yield and quality measurements, data was collected on plant growth and morphology, standability, and food quality attributes. Educational activities included a workshop on seed saving techniques, a bulletin describing commercially available OP varieties (currently in production), and a series of field days, winter meetings, news articles, and bulletins. Project coordinators worked with small seed companies in the region to promote marketing of promising OP corn varieties.

Performance Target:

The general objective of this project was to provide information to growers in the northeast about open-pollinated (OP) corn varieties. Field research was focused on characterization and comparative evaluation of OP varieties of corn. The complementary outreach goals were to provide a workshop on seed saving techniques, to provide descriptive information to farmers and seed producers about OP varieties, and to make available agronomic evaluations and recommendations of OP corn varieties for grain and silage use. We identified the following performance targets as specific objectives of this work:

a. Forty growers in NY and NH will try OP corn varieties on their farms during this project.
We have provided information on OP corn performance to growers, extension educators, agricultural industry personnel, and researchers at both field days (total of 205 attendees over the project lifetime) and in winter meetings (1,111 attendees over the project lifetime). Thus, over 1,300 people have heard about OP corn varieties and received some information about relative variety performance in the northeast U.S. as a result of this project. It is difficult to gauge how many growers from these audiences have tried OP corn, but we have received at least four inquiries from extension educators for data on OP corn performance because growers in their area were interested, and have interacted directly ourselves with at least four growers who were asking for information about OP variety performance. Thus, it seems likely that this performance target was achieved.

b. Twenty-five interested growers and seed marketers will become aware of OP varieties with unique traits that might fit specialty markets.
Information on specialty traits of OP corn varieties includes a level of detail that could not be readily included in field day or winter meeting presentations. This type of data will be part of the OP Corn Variety Catalog that is currently in production but not yet published. Once this publication is available, we will certainly be able to assess whether this performance target has been achieved based on requests for copies of this catalog.

c. Forty growers in the northeast will learn how to save their own seed of OP corn varieties and a significant share of them will plan to begin seed saving.
Of the many presentations about OP corn that we have made, two of them focused specifically on corn selection and seed saving techniques – one in 2003 that was given as part of the Public Seed Initiative farmer-breeder workshop and a second in 2006 that was a session of the NOFA-NY conference. Total attendance at these sessions was 57 people, indicating that we have reached more than our target number of growers with information about selecting and saving their own seed of OP corn. Questions at these sessions revealed that a number of the attendees were or planned to begin corn seed selection and saving.


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Materials and methods:

This project included a combination of field research and associated outreach activities that were carried out collaboratively in New York and New Hampshire. (Activities in New Hampshire were only during Years 1 and 2 of the project, as the team member in New Hampshire, Dr. Stefan Seiter, relocated out of the area before the beginning of Year 3.) The field research was focused on characterization of OP varieties and comparative evaluation of OP and hybrid varieties of corn under a range of different management systems, both on experiment stations and on farms. The outreach activities included a spectrum of educational products, field day and meeting presentations, and outreach to seed producers.

Field Research:

Small plot trials were conducted in all three project years to evaluate a wide array of candidate OP varieties, assess their agronomic and specialty trait characteristics, and choose the best to include in strip trials in subsequent years. Small plot trials were located on farms or experiment stations at three locations per year in New York, and all included two to four commercial hybrid check varieties. Because of the wide range in maturities of the OP varieties evaluated, varieties were assigned to either an early maturity trial group or a late maturity trial group, and each maturity trial was conducted in three locations of appropriate growing season length. Agronomic data collected in small plot trials included early vigor, days to flower, leaf canopy characteristics, plant and ear height, tillering, resistance to locally-occurring pests, stalk and root lodging, number of ears per plant, grain yield, ear traits (length, width, number of kernel rows), test weight, and grain moisture at harvest. Additional food quality and specialty use trait data was assessed on seed samples harvested from these small plot trials, and included proportion of damaged kernels; seed color, texture, hardness, and density; and pericarp removal and cooking time. Seed increase of OP varieties that are not commercially available was done using hand pollinations in the Cornell Corn Breeding Project’s nursery field in Aurora, New York via chain sibbing (to maintain as closely as possible the genetic mix present in the original OP variety seed).

Strip trials were established to compare OP corn varieties to conventional hybrid corn varieties for both silage and grain production on farms and on experiment stations during all three project years. Four to six OP varieties and two commercial hybrid checks were compared in strip trials at two New Hampshire locations (silage yield and quality) and three New York locations (grain yield and quality) in Year 1 and Year 2. Only the New York grain strip trials were continued in Year 3; silage yield and quality in Year 3 were evaluated in small plot trials in two New York locations (due to the departure of our New Hampshire team member prior to the start of this third project year). Varieties in strip trials in Year 1 included the most promising OP varieties based on preliminary evaluation of a range of OP varieties done in 2000 and 2001 in Maine (silage) and in 2001 in New York (grain and silage). In Years 2 and 3, two of the initial varieties were eliminated from strip trials due to poor performance. Based on small plot evaluations, two new varieties were added to the strip trials in Year 2 and another two were added in Year 3. Strip trials were planted on farms employing a diversity of management systems, including both conventional and organic production. Different hybrid checks had to be used on the organic fields, as it was not possible to get the same commercial hybrid checks as organically produced or untreated seed. Data was collected on yield (grain or silage), maturity, stalk and root lodging, tillering, number of ears per plant, root system parameters, and feed quality.

Outreach Activities

Our overall outreach goals were: (1) to provide a workshop on seed saving techniques (including techniques for maintaining seed purity and for improving variety performance), (2) to provide descriptive information to farmers and seed producers about the characteristics and potential specialty and conventional uses of commercial and experimental OP varieties, and (3) to make available agronomic evaluations and recommendations of OP corn varieties for grain and silage use (including feed quality information). Educational activities in the first project years were focused on field days and presentation of early research results, and in the later years included workshops for seed producers and seed savers and diverse forms of publications.

Field day demonstrations were conducted in each state in every year of project activity. Results also were shared at winter meetings (in-service training for extension educators, grower meetings, and conferences of organizations such as NOFA). Articles were written for extension bulletins and the farm press. A catalog describing the attributes of a wide array of current commercial and experimental OP varieties is currently in production. Individual contacts were made with both established and potential seed producers to share results for promising OP varieties that they might consider marketing.

In Years 2 and 3, workshops were conducted on seed production and seed saving techniques for growers interested in saving their own seed of OP varieties or producing OP variety seed for marketing to other growers. Workshop content included information on maintaining seed purity (including techniques for minimizing contamination from genetically engineered varieties) and on selection to improve OP variety performance.

Research results and discussion:

Generally, our work progressed almost entirely as planned and in accordance with our research and outreach milestones. Each year we had as many farmer-cooperators engaged in research trials as we had expected and our outreach efforts connected with even more people than we had anticipated. Major accomplishments over the project lifetime included identifying farmer-cooperators, establishing the field trials in each of the three original project years, collecting data on ear and cooking quality traits from the second year trials and agronomic data from all trials, and conducting several outreach activities to let people know about the project and share up-to-date project data. Details are presented below by project milestones.

Research Milestones

a. Farmer collaborators decide to engage in research. We contacted and engaged with eight different farmer collaborators in NY and two in NH, all of whom hosted trials on their farms. We also engaged farm managers and conducted trials at three research farms in NY and one research farm in NH.

b. Farmers and researchers establish trials. Strip trials to evaluate four to six promising OP varieties and two commercial hybrid checks for grain were planted at three to four locations in NY in the first three project years, and similar trials for silage were planted in NH in 2002 and 2003. Small plot trials of these same varieties were planted at two NY locations to evaluate silage yield and quality in 2004. In addition, small plot trials to screen a broad range of OP varieties were established in NY at six different locations (three earlier maturing and three later maturing) in each of the first three project years.

c. Researchers collect, analyze, and interpret data. Plant population, grain yield, grain moisture, and stalk and root lodging data were collected on strip trials and grain quality analysis was conducted. Silage trials included assessments of plant population, dry matter content, yield, and silage quality. Extensive data collection was done on the many OP varieties in the small plot grain trials, including plant morphology, plant development, yield, ear traits, and processing and eating quality analyses.

Outreach Milestones

a. 36 farmers attend field days each year. Attendance at field days during the three main project years generally surpassed this goal, with 108 farmers attending in 2002, 76 in 2003, and 21 in 2004 (an additional 50 farmers were able to view a poster about this project at the 2004 field day but were not at the talk itself).

b. 300 farmers, extension educators, and seedsmen attend winter meetings and in-service presentations. Again, the attendance at winter meetings where this work was presented surpassed this goal, with over 1,000 people attending presentations where this project and its results were discussed. Most winter meeting presentations took place in NY, but a few also occurred in NH.

Participation Summary


Educational approach:

As noted previously in this report (sections on performance targets and milestones), we have reached many more people than anticipated with field day, winter meeting, and scientific research meeting presentations about our OP corn variety evaluation project. Handouts were produced for four different field days in NY, two poster presentations were prepared on this project (one presented at the 2004 Northeast SARE Conference), and six different powerpoint presentations on this project were prepared and delivered in various meeting venues. We are in the process of producing a catalog with data and descriptive information on all the OP varieties we have evaluated. Based on the continuing invitations to speak on this topic, it seems that these materials have been well received and were found useful to their intended audiences.

No milestones

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

The core activity of this project was variety evaluation. Results are presented in appended figures and tables for grain and silage strip trials and for small plot grain trials.

Figures 1-3 show results from silage strip trials (carried out in NH in 2002 and 2003) and small plot trials (carried out in NY in 2004). Silage yield and maturity for the more competitive OP varieties (Nokomis Gold, E95, BS21/BS22) were close to those of the hybrid checks, however their silage quality tended to be a bit worse due to higher fiber (NDF) and/or lower starch. Minnesota 13 appeared to have higher protein than the hybrid checks in the two years that it was tested, but its lower yield and starch content actually resulted in less predicted milk production both per ton of silage and per acre of silage produced. Based on these latter measures (which we only had the complete data to be able to calculate in our 2004 trials), Nokomis Gold, E95, and BS22/BS21 are predicted to produce the greatest amount of milk per acre among the OP varieties we tested, but none of these were quite as good in terms of predicted milk production per acre as the hybrid checks (where the hybrid checks were predicted to produce 30,000+ pounds of milk per acre, these OP varieties were predicted to produce 25,000 to 27,000 pounds of milk per acre). With OP variety seed cost significantly lower than hybrid seed cost (E95, for example, sold at $50 a unit in 2004, while most hybrid seed costs over $100 a unit), the somewhat reduced milk production per acre may not represent a significant reduction in income.

Figures 4 –6 show results from the grain strip trials carried out in NY in 2002, 2003, and 2004. All of the OP varieties yielded less grain then the hybrid checks and had more problems with stalk lodging. Among the OP varieties, Nokomis Gold, E95, and BS21/BS22 had the best grain yields (the same varieties that were most promising for silage). Wapsie Valley was also fairly high yielding and a bit earlier in maturity, but had even greater problems with stalk lodging. Considering overall yield and standability, BS21/BS22 was best. This is actually a variety cross between two OP populations (BS21 and BS22) developed and improved at Iowa State University. Its superior performance supports the notion we started this project out with – that there are likely some superior materials being produced by public sector breeding programs. Although seed of this variety cross would have to be produced and purchased every year (like hybrid seed), the fact that the parents of this cross are themselves highly productive varieties would make seed cost much less than for a commercial hybrid, where the seed is produced on inbred parent plants (which are inherently poor in vigor and low yielding).

The results of our small plot grain evaluations of the broad collection of OP varieties are presented in Tables 1 and 2 (earlier maturing varieties) and Tables 3 and 4 (later maturing varieties). The check hybrids are highlighted in pink in each of these tables. Again, none of the OP varieties yielded as well as the check hybrids and all of them had greater problems with stalk lodging. Among the earlier maturing varieties, the most competitive OPs were BS21/BS22, a selection of Wapsie Valley adapted to higher plant density, and E95. This confirmed that our choice of “most promising” varieties to include in the strip trials was well made. Despite screening 21 additional OP varieties in this earlier maturity range, we did not find varieties that were better than the ones included in our strip trials. (It should be noted that the parents of BS21/BS22 were also evaluated in this trial, and had yields of 90 to 95 bushels per acre. We noted above that these parents would yield much more seed than the inbred parents of a typical commercial hybrid – yields on a recent test of inbreds we carried out ranged up to a maximum of 36 bushels per acre.)

Among the later maturing varieties (Tables 3 and 4), none of the OP varieties came close to the yields of the check hybrids (161 to 197 bushels per acre). Corn for longer growing seasons always has higher yield potential (there is simply more time for the crop to grow and fix energy from sunlight that it can pump into grain). More breeding effort has been devoted to longer season hybrids, since these are appropriate in maturity for the U.S. corn belt where the largest seed markets are found. Thus, the competition in the form of elite highly tailored hybrids is probably greater in this later maturity group than among the earlier maturity materials. It will likely be more difficult to identify or develop an OP variety that can realistically compete with these corn-belt-maturity hybrids than for the earlier maturing hybrids that fit many of our NY and northeast US growing environments.

As a result of our relatively extensive evaluation of OP varieties, a number of farmers have contacted us and/or used our data in choosing which varieties are “best bets” for their farm. One organic seed producer and farmer is producing seed for sale of Wapsie Valley, based in part on these results. Extension educators in both NY and NH have come to view us as a resource for information on OP varieties, including performance data and information on seed saving and seed selection.

Farmer Adoption

This project should improve the profitability of farms choosing to grow OP corn, as there is now a reasonable set of data upon which to base OP variety choices. Prior to this study, there had been no systematic testing of a broad range of OP corn varieties anywhere in the northeast US. There is still very little such testing that has been done anywhere in the country. This project has increased awareness of OP varieties in general, and has also heightened farmers’ awareness of the role of seed selection in OP variety performance (our results showed that different sources of a single OP variety, Reid for example, can perform quite differently as a result of the environment and the selection pressures that were present during seed production), and the importance of seed quality for any type of variety (some of the OP varieties performed poorly as a result, at least in part, simply of poor seed quality and low germination). Being aware of the importance of these factors will make the community of farmers growing OP corn more discriminating in terms of their variety and seed choices, and should create an economic incentive for good growers to succeed in the OP seed production business.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

As in any crop variety assessment, this work is not “done”. There are always new varieties becoming available that should be compared to existing varieties to know about their relative performance. Thus it would be desirable to continue OP corn variety evaluations for both grain and silage productivity and quality. There remain many anecdotal reports that livestock “like” OP corn better than hybrids and that their intake is better and their weight gain or milk production is greater when fed OP corn than when fed hybrids. Work done at Cornell that was beyond the scope of this project has not been able to document any evidence for why this might be the case, although that work (like the calculations done in this study) is based on models of milk production per ton or per acre of silage and models for calculating feed costs for balanced rations for lactating dairy cows and for finishing steers and pigs. Further investigation of these anecdotal reports would be interesting to pursue using actual animal feeding studies.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.