Vanished yield potential

How much yield is lost every year because we don’t apply the knowledge from the past?

Huber, McNeil, Zimmer, and others have reported regularly achieving 400+ bu per acre corn yields during the ’70s and ’80s. What happened? How was that yield potential lost? Why are we going backward? Why haven’t we made more progress?

From my podcast interview with Gary Zimmer:

John: What is something that you believe to be true about modern agriculture that is very different from the mainstream view?

Gary: When I was at Brookside, back in 1976, I visited a farm in northern Illinois that was growing 375-bushel corn, with a public variety of corn from the University of Illinois, on forty-inch rows. You could stick your hand in the ground clear to your elbow. Of course it got my attention.

In the ’90s, in Iowa, there was somebody who grew 400- to 500-bushel corn. That really opened up the doors to say that there’s much more potential.

This is why I find it offensive when people say, “How are we going to feed all these people?”

I say, “Forty percent of our corn goes into making ethanol, and we have the capability to double our yields. And we can do it with a cleaner method of farming.” It’s not that we can’t produce more food. And most people don’t even eat corn and beans. We can do a lot of things if we want to feed people. I think that conventional agriculture, or whatever you want to call it— modern agriculture—is shifting to a biological farming system.

2022-02-08T18:58:05-05:00February 10th, 2022|Tags: , , , |

Early potato tuber set

This root system developed in 14 days after planting.

How many tubers do you suppose this potato plant can set in the first two sets and bring to full size at maturity?

The answer is: 20-30+, depending on the variety.

The first tuber set occurs much earlier than many expect, and can occur as early as 10-14 days after planting.

If a goal is to produce large numbers of tubers in a condensed early set, it is important to use products that drive reproduction rather than vegetative growth at planting.

These potatoes had a complete planter solution in the furrow that included Rejuvenate and Accelerate, and a foliar with Accelerate soon after emergence.

How much calcium do you think this root system can move into the tubers?

2021-07-30T10:39:52-05:00August 2nd, 2021|Tags: , , , , , |

Harvest uniformity

Plants with abundant energy produce flower clusters with uniform size and fruit with uniform maturity. Nutritional integrity has at least as big, if not a bigger impact on harvest timing and quality than genetics.

2020-09-15T11:43:42-05:00September 18th, 2020|Tags: , |

Root systems and stem diameter needed to achieve yield potential

There are a number of crops where the plants express a large untapped genetic yield potential.

Well managed cantaloupe plants will regularly pollinate, set, and begin sizing over 20 melons per plant until they are about 2 inches in diameter. Then most of them will abort. Exceptional yields are 10,000 melons per acre from 4000 plants or 2.5 melons per plant.

Grape tomatoes can have as many as 150 blossoms per cluster, yet only produce 35-50 marketable fruit per cluster. Tree fruit and nuts can set many more fruit than they can fill to marketable size. We expect ‘June drop’ as a common phenomenon where trees abort many of the set fruit embryos. (How much calcium and trace minerals are exported from the tree when these fruitlets drop after the cell division stage?)

We know the significant factor that limits the realization of yield potential for many crops is environmental/nutritional stress.

There is another significant factor that is less well understood, partially because many of us have not observed 50+ years of plant breeding work, and the gradual evolution of changing plant expression.

Most modern varieties of the crops I have mentioned, and other crops, have the genetic predisposition to develop many blossoms and set a lot of fruit. And they lack the root system and stem diameter to supply water and nutrients to fill all these fruits.

Many modern cucurbit varieties have comparatively weak root systems when compared with older varieties, and they have thinner diameter vines. The reason some watermelon are grafted on gourd rootstock, and some tomatoes are grafted on cherry tomato rootstock is that the rootstock has a much more robust root system, and delivers more nutrition to the crop through a larger diameter stem.

Ed Curry, the chili pepper breeder I interviewed on the podcast has been able to increase the average yield of chili peppers by more than two times over 40 years of breeding work, largely by focusing on developing varieties with a large stem size, and a robust root system. A narrow diameter stem can not deliver the water and nutrients needed to realize the yields many plants are genetically capable of.

What have you observed about root system size and stem diameter over the years?

2020-08-20T21:16:39-05:00August 21st, 2020|Tags: , |

Yield potential of cucumbers

Good cucumbers crops will have a single female blossom on every node when water and nutrients are well-managed. Average cucumber crops will have some of the nodes occupied with male blossoms or aborted female blossoms. You can identify the prior period when water or nutrients were inadequate by observing which nodes don’t have a female blossom and fruit.

Exceptional crops with ideal water and nutrient management can produce several female blossoms per node, and fill all the fruit to harvest size.

How much higher yields do you suppose could be harvested from an exceptional crop compared to an average crop?

P.S. I had an interesting conversation with Aharon Henderson on the EcoIQ podcast that released recently. You can find the episode here.

2020-07-16T21:06:09-05:00July 17th, 2020|Tags: , |

Large root systems produce many more fruit buds

Green beans are one of the crops we refer to as a ‘multi-fruiting’ crop, which is a crop that blooms and sets fruit for an extended period, and has the capacity to increase the number of buds based on health and nutritional integrity.

Beans can have one pod per node or a dozen. Tomatoes can have two tomatoes per cluster, or ten. Cucumbers can have one female bud per node, or three. For these multi-fruiting crops, it is possible to produce large yield increases by increasing the number of fruit per plant when we make sure the soil has the capacity to deliver all the nutrition needed to fill the fruit load.

The key to producing short tight internodes and many fruit buds is to make sure these plants have an abundance of cytokinins being produced each day. (There is a closely connected conversation about maintaining a balance between nutrients which drive vegetative growth and reproductive growth, which you can learn about in the podcast here.)

Cytokinins are produced in growing root tips and cobalt is a key enzyme cofactor needed for cytokinin synthesis.

The key is that a growing root tip is needed to produce cytokinins, particularly at the stages of bud initation and pollination.

A healthy disease resistant plant will always be cytokinin dominant, rather than auxin dominant. This means they will always have more growing root tips (producing cytokinins) than they have growing shoot tips or seeds (producing auxins). It also means that these plants will have larger root biomass than vegetative biomass.

This is a topic worth diving deeply into, particularly if you are growing these types of crops.

Increasing the pod count on soybeans by more than 50% is easy. Filling those beans to produced an increased yield is where the focused attention needs to be. Similar increases are possible on many other crops.

2020-06-23T15:05:19-05:00July 3rd, 2020|Tags: , , , |

What healthy table grapes look like

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, which seems to undervalue this photo. Does it even need any commentary?

These grapes are still 3-4 weeks away from harvest. The berries will continue to size even bigger than they are now. They are crunchy, the stems are green. Notice how there are no diseases and insects present? That is not the case because of pesticide sprays.

I can’t resist adding the mantra, We don’t really know what healthy plants actually look like anymore.

2020-06-18T20:11:06-05:00June 19th, 2020|Tags: , |

Yield potential of blueberries

For most crops, genetics are not the limiting factor to achieve high yields. It is very seldom, almost never, that a crop is given the needed environment to deliver full genetic potential. For agricultural crops, environment is climate mediated by nutrition, biology, and soil physics.

When nutrition, biology, and soil physics are managed for optimal performance, they mitigate climactic extremes and variability to an exceptional degree, and allow plants to express themselves to deliver more of their genetic yield potential.

If you want to significantly increase yields, don’t just try to improve incrementally by purchasing better genetics. Improved genetics can often deliver 5% -10% yield bumps. Mediating climate by managing nutrition, biology, and soil physics can often increase yields by 20%-50% or more. Which is worth figuring out the most?

2020-06-24T07:15:45-05:00May 21st, 2020|Tags: , |

We can produce enough food to feed 15 billion people with 30% less land with 1960’s tech, if we want to.

This quote from the podcast interview with Don Huber is powerful and important.

We were shooting for 400 bushels in 1979 and 1980, and now we’re struggling with 250 bushels.

John: Don, in 1979 you were producing 350-plus bushels of corn per acre in a biological soil ecosystem. Today, growers are struggling to produced 250 bushels of corn. We don’t even have a conversation about growing 350 bushels of corn on a commercial field scale. There are a few notable exceptions, but not on a large-scale production system. What happened with that knowledge? Where did it go? Why was it not adopted on a much broader scale?

Don: We started saying we had too much production. We needed to focus on different things. At our land grant universities, a lot of that research and the long-term commitments that breeding programs require for the expression of that genetic potential was closed out. Materials were just given to the private companies to develop their experiment stations.

The universities were happy to not have that long-term commitment. They could then respond to the political pressures, and their programs started being limited to three to five years—for the competitive grant programs on a federal scale. And most of our breeding programs were funded through the Hatch Program and the Smith-Lever Program, which would give the states a constant amount of money on a formula basis for those long-term agricultural developments, which are the reason why we have success in our agricultural programs. They were built on those long-term, continuous programs that were pretty much abandoned as we started looking at the bells and whistles in science rather than at the end product.

Again, we were producing more than we knew what to do with. I don’t know what we’d do with all the corn that we currently produce if we weren’t producing so much ethanol. I mean, that’s the way to use your crop: find a new market for it. Certainly, population growth is a long way from requiring our current production. We could produce enough food for about fifteen billion people with about 30 percent less land—if we wanted to really do that, if we really needed to do that—with the technology that we had in 1964.

We were shooting for 400 bushels in 1979 and 1980, and now we’re struggling with 250 bushels. But sometimes you have to reinvent the wheel. That part of the system was not considered important, and the resources were fractured. In a breeding program, you don’t just turn it on and off with each little whim or political idea that comes along. It’s a long-term program. When we turned all of that material over to the private companies, their interest was the bottom line. There’s a tremendous amount of material that could be manipulated. But as far as that long-term commitment, there hasn’t been any of that.

Genetic engineering certainly has not improved the long-term effects; you get the idea that we can do it all in a laboratory just by switching this system on or inhibiting this particular system. We forget that it’s still a system—an ecology that has to be managed—if any of it’s going to be of value to us. It’s a thought process that’s involved, as well as the necessity. But also, the desire—the innovation—drops out when you forget that you’re a part of a very dynamic, beautiful system that was all put together—when you start focusing on only one thing. Silver bullets may take care of a varmint, but they don’t provide stability in the system. 

2020-05-19T19:18:25-05:00May 20th, 2020|Tags: , , , |

What healthy radishes actually look like

We don’t even know what healthy plants actually look like anymore. Wait, I just said that recently. Oh well, it is worth repeating.

These were radishes from our product test plots at AEA in 2011. Six weeks after planting the radishes without the tops weighed an average of 9 ounces each. They were sweet, crisp, and clear all the way through. No bitterness, no woodiness, and no splitting.

This is what healthy radishes are supposed to look like.


2020-05-13T07:12:15-05:00May 13th, 2020|Tags: , |
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