Zumbrota farmer developing corn hybrid

Published 5:06 pm Saturday, December 12, 2009

Most farmers in southeastern Minnesota are nearly finished harvesting corn, but Bill Beckman of rural Zumbrota has been done for months.

As an alternative to yellow corn, he’s been developing an 85-day white corn hybrid using classic Mendelian genetics.

Mendelian genetics doesn’t involve bioengineering; instead Beckman uses trial and error. He crosses plants, having them take pollen from themselves or others and then waits to see what happens.

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This year, he planted the hybrid on April 17, and the corn was ready for harvest by Sept. 15 with a 20 percent moisture content.

During a presentation early this month at the Rochester Sunrise Kiwanis meeting, Beckman showed members several corn ears from his plot and compared them to traditional yellow corn. His corn ears were longer and had more kernels than the yellow corn. He said the ideal corn stalk should be six to eight feet tall with lots of leaves above the ear.

“Yield is fully determined after corn reaches knee high,” Beckman said.

He said ear length is important, because that’s how yield can be increased. He said a good ear of corn should have 14 rows of kernels and should run diagonally instead of straight.

He showed an ear of corn with 640 kernels, compared to his white corn ear with 740 kernels. The white corn ear was a few inches longer.

He’s also created an ear of corn that holds 1,100 kernels, which would yield 500 bushels per acre.

“Regular corn companies would have a hard time competing with that,” Beckman said.

This year’s corn yield in southeastern Minnesota has ranged from 175 bushels to more than 200 bushels per acre.

While the U.S. is the home of yellow corn, some white corn has been grown in Oklahoma and Texas. Several other countries plant white corn because it’s more resistant to disease and doesn’t break down as much when it travels long distances.

“American farmers have a corn and soybean mentality,” Beckman said. “It would be nice if we could break that.”

He said current cornfields are too uniform; he believes they should be more diverse.

The corn hybrid he’s creating can be farmed with the same acres and machinery used today. However, he wants the corn to use fewer resources.

For his half-acre plot, he used only 18 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer. Some farmers use as much as 160 to 180 pounds per acre on their yellow corn.

He’s been working on the hybrid for nine years and believes he’s two years away from releasing the hybrid.

“The market for white corn is there, it’s just not here in the U.S.,” Beckman said. “Why not ship it?”

He also believes white corn could have a great future in ethanol.

“I don’t think we should be using any yellow corn for ethanol,” Beckman said.