Evaluating Open-Pollinated Corn Varieties

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2001: $75,300.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Zeno Wicks, III
South Dakota State University

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn


  • Education and Training: demonstration, display, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns, feasibility study


    The objectives of the research were to 1) assess agronomic performance and economic viability of open-pollinated corn varieties and varietal hybrids; 2) produce a manual with pertinent breeding and technical information that will instruct and aid producers in improving and propagating open-pollinated varieties; 3) increase awareness and knowledge of open-pollinated corn through workshops, seminars, and field tours; and 4) gain feedback from producers. Several open-pollinated varieties (including synthetic populations and population crosses) and varietal hybrids currently in breeding programs at North Dakota State University, South Dakota State University, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute and Iowa State University were used in the project. Research was conducted at university research farms and farmer-cooperator sites in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota at several sites per state. Replicated strip trials were used to compare agronomic performance of open-pollinated varieties, varietal hybrids and synthetic populations and population crosses to commercial single-cross hybrids. Kernel protein, oil and mineral composition and suitability for dry-milling were also evaluated. An enterprise analysis was generated for each site using price assumptions for grain, and cooperator data was used to determine the actual costs and benefits associated with producing open-pollinated corn versus hybrid corn. All study results were summarized and published in a manual that will assist producers in improving and producing open-pollinated corn. Results were also presented at field tours, seminars, workshops, and conferences. We dealt with about 500 producers in the two years of the project.


    An increased interest exists among corn producers to grow open-pollinated corn for four main reasons: economic considerations, grain quality, self-reliance, and independence from agricultural conglomerates. Commercial hybrid seed costs from $50 to $75 per acre to plant, excluding other input costs. Producers growing open-pollinated varieties (including synthetic populations) can produce their own seed from year to year, thus reducing their out-of-pocket costs for hybrid seed purchase. Unrelated open-pollinated varieties may have the potential to produce varietal hybrids that have economic yields comparable to single-cross commercial hybrids, and varietal hybrids are simple and inexpensive for growers to produce. For organic producers, this is especially important because of the substantial premium received for their product. There is also a concern among some farmers about single company control over pesticides, seed and marketing.

    Many producers grow corn solely to feed to their own livestock. For them, nutrition is the most important factor because of profit realized from animal production. Most commercially available single-cross hybrids are developed solely for grain yield, with little attention given to nutritional qualities. Open-pollinated varieties can easily be improved for nutritional traits such as protein, oil, and trace elements.

    Currently, most corn populations are utilized only to create inbred lines for single-cross hybrid development. The Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in Wisconsin recently released a modern open-pollinated variety (‘Nokomis Gold’) that can be planted at high population densities with excellent stands. Five years of plot trials in southern Wisconsin have shown a yield of 15% less than high yielding commercial hybrids of the same maturity, but with protein values ranging from 9.5% to 12.2% compared to values of 8.0% to 9.5% for commercial hybrids. Preliminary studies suggest that ‘Nokomis Gold’ is economically competitive with commercial hybrids when grain prices range from $1 to $2 per bushel. These data are also significant to livestock producers because the higher grain protein further reduces total operational costs through improved feed efficiency. Seed of Nokomis Gold has been sold to 35 producers in Wisconsin and Minnesota, many of whom have sold this variety to other farmers. Feedback from these producers indicates an acceptance of this variety.

    Further research is necessary to assess the economic costs and benefits of growing open-pollinated corn, to identify promising open-pollinated varieties, and to evaluate the most effective breeding techniques for producers to utilize. Once this has been accomplished, technology transfer through manuals, workshops, and field tours will be possible. Also, close participation between researchers and producers will establish meaningful working relationships between federal, state, and private industries and local corn producers.

    Literature Review: The use of comparative budgets, partial budgeting and budget generators is quite common when attempting to evaluate the differences in costs and profitability levels between alternative production methods. Dhuyvetter et al. (1995) employed a partial budgeting framework to evaluate the cost and profitability differences between competing irrigation methods. This situation is very similar to our situation of evaluating different seed sources and their impact on farm profitability. The basis for evaluation is a detailed enterprise budget to determine all actual costs of production, revenue sources, and profitability. Separate budgets are typically created for different levels of production or technology employed (Kay and Edwards 1999). Enterprise budgets were the primary source of information for Funk et al. (1999) in their analysis of the profitability of different corn/soybean rotations under different input combinations. Using budget generators to develop these enterprise budgets is also a common practice. Taylor et al. (1996) used the Mississippi State Budget Generator to produce production budgets for a new livestock enterprise in Louisiana. The versatility of this process allows for adaptation to a wide variety of situations and will be quite appropriate in our enterprise analyses.

    Worldwide and especially in the United States, corn seed production is primarily a function of private seed companies and is conducted on a very large scale. Because of farmers’ acceptance of purchasing quality hybrid seed each year, the commercial hybrid corn seed industry has developed from small, family-owned businesses into large, multi-million dollar corporations which produce and market hybrid seed internationally (Hallauer 1987). Because of this, and because of the increased yield of single-cross hybrids over open-pollinated varieties, little attention has been given to the development and improvement of open-pollinated corn populations for agricultural purposes. CIMMYT conducted a large program examining the development and maintenance of open-pollinated corn varieties (CIMMYT 1999). However, we feel that their procedure was flawed because they used populations that were not adapted to some environments and because of a lack of pollen control during seed production.
    Currently, open-pollinated corn populations, including synthetic cultivars, are used primarily in developing inbred lines which are then crossed to produce hybrids. These populations are also continuously improved using recurrent selection methods. Different methods of recurrent selection to improve yield, nutrition, and other agronomic traits in open-pollinated populations have all demonstrated good advances in genetic gain for all traits under improvement (Sprague and Eberhart 1977, Hallauer and Miranda 1981). Recurrent selection methods are employed in both private and public breeding programs. Public breeding programs at Land Grant universities often release their populations through their state Agricultural Experiment Stations and institutional foundation seed organizations. These populations can often be purchased by any interested party, including private seed companies, for a small fee. Many of the populations released by public institutions perform very well as populations per se and as population crosses, with some yielding only 15% to 20% less than some commercial hybrids of similar maturity and regional adaptation. This is especially important in high-stress, low-yielding environments because as the percent difference in yield remains the same, there are actually fewer bushels that comprise this difference while seed costs remain the same. Therefore, open-pollinated populations may have a niche in certain sustainable agriculture operations, especially in fringe areas of the Corn Belt. Farmers can produce their own seed of populations and population crosses from year to year with minimal effort and not have to pay for expensive hybrid seed each year. If the difference in input costs compensates for the lower yield, then it would be profitable for farmers to utilize open-pollinated populations in their operations.
    Literature Citations

    CIMMYT Technical Bulletin. 1999. Development, maintenance, and seed multiplication of open-pollinated maize varieties. CIMMYT Maize Program.

    Dhuyvetter, K.C., F.R. Lamm, and D.H. Rogers. 1995. Subsurface drip irrigation for field corn: An economic analysis. In Proc. of the 5th Intn’l Microirrigation Congress: Microirrigation for a Changing World. Orlando, Florida, 2-6 April. p 395-401.

    Funk, R.D., J.W. Mjelde, F.M Hons, and V.A Saladino. 1999. An economic analysis of a corn-soybean crop rotation under various input combinations in south-central Texas. Journal of Agriculture and Applied Economics vol. 31(1): p 69-81.

    Hallauer, A.R. 1987. Maize. Chapter eight in Principles of Cultivar Development, vol. 2, W.R. Fehr (ed.). Macmillan Publishing Company, New York.

    Hallauer, A.R. and J.B. Miranda Fo. 1981. Quantitative Genetics in Maize Breeding. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa.

    Kay, R.D. and W.M. Edwards. 1999. Farm Management (4th ed.). The McGraw-Hill Companies.

    Sprague, G.F. and S.A. Eberhart. 1977. Corn Breeding. p 305-362 in Corn and Corn Improvement, G.F. Sprague (ed.). American Society of Agronomy, Inc., Madison, Wisconsin.

    Taylor, G.L., J.M. Gillespie, and A. Schupp. 1997. Cost and returns estimates for ostrich production. Journal of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers vol. 61: p 34-42.

    Project objectives:

    The objectives of the research were to 1) assess agronomic performance and economic viability of open-pollinated corn varieties and varietal hybrids; 2) produce a manual with pertinent breeding and technical information that will instruct and aid producers in improving and propagating open-pollinated varieties; 3) increase awareness and knowledge of open-pollinated corn through workshops, seminars, and field tours; and 4) gain feedback from producers.

    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.