Providing Farmers the Technology Required to Efficiently Breed Corn Varieties Specifically Adapted to Alternative Cropping Systems

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2003: $134,400.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
W Ken Russell
University of Nebraska

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn


  • Crop Production: intercropping, application rate management
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity
  • Production Systems: general crop production


    The primary educational objective was to train 20 farmers in modern principles of corn breeding. This was accomplished by two workshops followed by the farmers conducting evaluation trails on their farms. Participation was 90% and 70% for the two workshops and 65% for the evaluation trials. The primary research goal was to evaluate the effectiveness of a new testing protocol that could be implemented by farmers without making significant capital outlays. In terms of data quality, the new protocol was found to be comparable to the standard testing protocol used by seed companies.


    The premises of this project were
    1) most corn farmers have a poor understanding of the modern principles of corn breeding that professionally trained corn breeders have used to increase by nearly five-fold corn grain yields over the past 75 years, and
    2) corn farmers will benefit from an enhanced understanding of these principles.

    The first of these was based on the many interactions the project leader has had with farmers during his 20+ years as a private and public corn breeder. The second premise was based on our belief that the private corn seed industry meets the seed needs of most, but not all farmers. Not meeting the seed needs likely is especially true for farmers who are using non-traditional cropping methods. The growth in the organic market is but one example that an increasing number of farmers are turning to non-traditional cropping methods. As these numbers grow, so to will the need of farmers for education in plant breeding.

    Professional plant breeding typically is done in high-input environments because the highest ratio of genetic to non-genetic variation occurs at such environments (Bänziger and Cooper, 2001). However, when different varieties are the best in high- and low-input environments, then the top-performing varieties will not be identified for all farmers by selection only in high-input trials. Smith (1991) compared four cropping systems in New York, one high input system and three lower input systems. She found that a single variety of corn was not best for all systems. Bänziger et al. (1997) also reported low correlations between performances of corn varieties in low- and high-input environments.

    A second consideration in ranking varieties is the selection criterion. Seed companies focus on harvestable grain yield. One consequence of this intense selection for yield has been a decrease in the protein concentration in the grain (Duvick, 1997). If protein content or other traits of corn not currently being measured by private breeders are important to a farmer, then it is likely that a selection program focused on these criteria will result in better varieties for that farmer than commercial hybrids selected solely for improved grain yield.

    Even assuming the hybrids developed by seed companies are the highest performers in all cropping systems used by farmers in the U.S., highest performance does not necessarily translate to best performance based on economic return. Benbrook (2001) estimated that the dollar value added by Bt corn via higher yields from 1996 to 2001 to U.S. farmers was $567 million, but the net premium paid by farmers for Bt corn during this period was $659 million. The net cost to farmers was $92 million. This loss does not include the indirect costs of growing a GMO hybrid, such as costs for segregating different GMO hybrids or a GMO from a non-GMO hybrid.

    Seed companies are now beginning to sell corn hybrids in which multiple, genetically-engineered traits are stacked. They claim that these traits lower input costs, such as the cost for pesticides. However, for low-input farmers who already use reduced levels of such inputs, this is less of an advantage.

    Additionally, farmers having the scientific knowledge to develop their own corn hybrids may provide some less obvious benefits to American agriculture besides having hybrids that better meet their needs. One likely benefit will be increased genetic diversity. Because most new seed company hybrids and the germplasm from which they are produced have legal protection, farmers will need to use different sources of germplasm to develop their hybrids. The increased genetic diversity that will result from this activity is important because most recently developed commercial hybrids are descended from a base of only six to eight hybrids (Tallury and Goodman, 1999). Secondly, we believe the ability to create improved varieties for their own use will give farmers a feeling of enhanced empowerment that will boost their self-image and morale. Kerr and Kolavalli (1999) recognized empowerment as an important condition for sustainable agricultural communities.

    If a farmer has a current or potential need to develop corn varieties, how does he/she proceed? To be successful, he must have an understanding of the same key principles that professional corn breeders have successfully used during the past 80 years. Secondly, a farmer must have a protocol for developing improved varieties that he can implement on his farm without making major capital investments.

    Project objectives:

    This project had two primary objectives, one educational and one research-oriented. The educational objective was to train a group of farmers in the modern principles of corn breeding. The most important of these are use of hybrid vigor, family-based selection, replication in field trials, and use of instrumentation to measure small differences in performance among varieties. But the farmer also needs a cost-effective protocol for implementing these procedures. Development and production of single-cross hybrids as done in the seed industry is capital intensive. Therefore, our research objective was to test a protocol a farmer could afford to implement to develop his own varieties.
    Meeting these objectives should lead to the following short-term outcomes:
    1) An ability by farmers to initiate corn variety development programs utilizing enhanced breeding methods and better field-plot techniques;
    2) An enhanced capability of sharing and analyzing farmer-generated data from evaluation trials;
    3) An increased awareness of public varieties of corn that may be used as source material in a selection program;
    4) A more positive attitude toward the possibilities of farmer-developed corn varieties.

    To the extent these outcomes are achieved, we believe the long-term outcome will be the implementation of on-farm breeding programs based on sound breeding principles and ultimately a greater number of corn varieties better suited to sustainable corn production systems and/or that better satisfy a variety of niche markets. This will enhance the economic viability of alternative farming systems.

    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.