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Selecting corn hybrids for grain production

Hybrid selection is one of the most important agronomic decisions for corn production.

Hybrids that consistently perform well over multiple locations or years in a region are desirable because next year’s growing conditions are uncertain.

Consider trial results from multiple sources, including universities, grower associations, seed companies and on-farm trials.

Results: 2017 University of Minnesota corn grain performance trials

View the results of other corn trials at:

Hybrids are turning over at a faster rate than ever before. Try new and unproven hybrids on limited acreage to see how they do in your fields. As more information becomes available, these hybrids can begin to play a larger role in your corn production system.

How to select corn hybrids for grain production

  • Identify an acceptable maturity range based on the growing degree days (GDDs) required for a hybrid to reach maturity. Selected hybrids should reach maturity at least 10 days before the first average freeze to allow time for grain dry-down and to provide a buffer in a cool year or if planting is delayed.

  • Plant multiple hybrids of varying maturity to widen the harvest time frame. Planting hybrids of ranging maturities also widens the timeframe for pollination, reducing the risk that an entire crop will experience hot and dry conditions during pollination.

  • Remember that full-season hybrids do not consistently out-yield mid-season hybrids in the Upper Midwest. There’s more variability in grain yield among hybrids within a given relative maturity group than there is between maturity groups.

  • Select hybrids according to agronomic traits, including suitability for a given crop rotation, emergence, root strength, standability and tolerance to diseases, drought, insect pests and herbicides.

Impact on yield

Since 1948, the average corn yield in Minnesota has increased steadily at a rate of two bushels per acre per year (Figure 1), due to improved hybrids and agronomic practices. This underscores the importance of hybrid selection.

Although yield gains from improved agronomic practices may be more difficult to obtain than in the past, yields from 270 to 312 bushels per acre reported by Minnesota growers in the 2008 National Corn Growers Association yield contest indicate crop management and growing conditions are major limitations in corn yield. This likely explains why yields of this magnitude are not more common.

 

chart with line trending up from 35 to 155 bushels/acre
Figure 1: Average Minnesota corn yields from 1948 to 2008. Source: USDA-National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Maturity and growing degree days

In the northern Corn Belt, maturity is one of the most important factors to consider when selecting hybrids. Hybrid maturity is rated using the relative maturity (RM) and/or GDD rating systems.

With the RM system, hybrid maturity is expressed in days. This does not represent the number of days required from emergence to physiological maturity. Rather, it’s a relative measure of maturity for a given hybrid compared to hybrids of known maturity.

Although there’s no industry standard for measuring RM, hybrid RM across companies closely relates to the number of GDDs required from planting to maturity. Generally, a 95-day RM hybrid needs between 2,350 and 2,400 GDDs from planting to maturity, with each one-day increase in RM increasing the GDD requirement for a hybrid by an average of 22 GDDs (Figure 2).

chart with a straight line trending from 1900 GDD and 72 relative maturity days to 2900 GDD and 120 relative maturity days
Figure 2: Relationship between GDDs needed for maturity and relative maturity for 480 hybrids. Each point is an average of hybrids for a relative maturity.

The GDD system for rating hybrid maturity allows one to compare a hybrid’s GDD requirements with the number of GDDs that typically occur during the growing season for a given location and planting date (Tables 1-7 and Figure 3). Daily GDDs are calculated based on daily high and low temperatures (measured in degrees Fahrenheit) according to the following equation:

GDD = [(High + Low)/2] - 50 degrees F

where “High” is the daily high (set at 86 degrees F if the daily high is above 86) and “Low” is the daily low (set at 50 degrees if the daily low is less than 50).

Selected hybrids should reach maturity at least ten days before the first average frost (32 degrees F) . This allows time for grain dry-down prior to harvest along with a buffer in case planting is delayed or GDD accumulation lags behind normal.

In addition, consider planting multiple hybrids of varying maturity, as this reduces the probability that an entire crop will experience hot and dry conditions during the critical pollination period.

Map of Minnesota with the most GDD accumulation in southwest MN and southeast corner, and the least in the arrowhead region.
Figure 3: Average GDD accumulation from May 1 to Sept. 30 (1971 to 2000). Source: Minnesota State Climatology Office, Department of Natural Resources.

Average GDD accumulation for various planting dates

Tables 1-7 show the average growing degree day (GDD) accumulation (1971-2000) until the first average frost for six planting dates in locations across Minnesota.

First fall frosts are shown as median dates of critical fall temperatures (1948-2005) across Minnesota. To adjust for 10 days before the average frost (to allow for drying), subtract those GDDs from the larger number at your planting date.

While the number of GDDs available to a crop reduces with delayed planting, a hybrid’s GDD requirement is also reduced as planting date is delayed. For example, research from Indiana shows a hybrid’s GDD requirement reduces by 6.8 GDDs for each one-day delay in planting beyond May 1.

By region: GDDs by planting date and first fall frost dates

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Yield and relative maturity

Within a given region, mid- to full-season hybrids generally have higher yield potential than early-maturing hybrids (Figures 4 through 9), as they utilize more of the GDDs available during the season.

However, in Minnesota it’s rare for very full-season hybrids to out-yield the mid-season hybrids. There’s also more variability in yield among hybrids within a given RM rating than between maturity groups, further underscoring the importance of hybrid selection.

Grain moisture and relative maturity

Another important consideration is that grain moisture at harvest increases steadily with increasing relative maturity (Figure 10). On average, grain moisture at harvest increases by 0.25-0.44 percent with each one-day increase in relative maturity (Figure 11). Selecting hybrids of appropriate maturity is important to balance between yield potential and grain moisture at harvest.

corn-yield-maturity-sw
Figure 4: Relationship between relative maturity and corn yield among hybrids in the southwest Minnesota corn hybrid trial in Lamberton in 2008.
corn-yield-maturity-sw-2007
Figure 5: Relationship between relative maturity and corn yield among hybrids in the southwest Minnesota corn hybrid trial in Lamberton in 2007.
corn-yield-maturity-sw-2006
Figure 6: Relationship between relative maturity and corn yield among hybrids in the southwest Minnesota corn hybrid trial in Lamberton in 2006.
corn-yield-maturity-nw-2008
Figure 7: Relationship between relative maturity and corn yield among hybrids in the northwest Minnesota corn hybrid trial in Crookston in 2008.
corn-yield-maturity-nw-2007
Figure 8: Relationship between relative maturity and corn yield among hybrids in the northwest Minnesota corn hybrid trial in Crookston in 2007.
corn-yield-maturity-nw-2006
Figure 9: Relationship between relative maturity and corn yield among hybrids in the northwest Minnesota corn hybrid trial in Crookston in 2006.
corn-maturity-moisture
Figure 10: Relationship between relative maturity and grain moisture at harvest in hybrids in southern Minnesota in 2008. Data are averaged over three locations
corn-maturity-moisture-region
Figure 11: Increase in grain moisture at harvest with each one-day increase in relative maturity. We averaged data from each region over two or three locations.

Agronomic traits

After you identify a set of consistently high-yielding hybrids within your maturity range, base further selection within this group on specific agronomic traits. Choosing a hybrid with a strong balance of agronomic traits is important for managing risk, but the relative importance of individual traits differs with production practices and growing conditions.

Important agronomic considerations include standability, tolerance to diseases and drought, transgenic resistance to insects and herbicides within a given production system and good emergence under cool conditions.

Standability

Standability is a common agronomic trait that’s critical for ensuring harvestable grain. Since corn has a narrow optimum plant population, unharvestable ears due to stalk and root lodging will greatly impact yield.

In a 2005 hybrid trial conducted in northwest Iowa where severe lodging was present, each 1 percent increase in lodging reduced yield by an average of 0.5 bushels per acre. Standability is particularly important for corn that will be planted at a higher population, or for corn likely to be under drought stress. This is because stalk diameter decreases with increasing plant population, and because drought stress favors stalk rot.

Growers can easily evaluate the standability of a hybrid in a given field using the late-season push test, where plants are pushed 45 degrees (about 10 inches) from vertical at ear level. Plants that break after the push test are at risk for stalk lodging.

Stalk strength can also be evaluated by pinching the lower stalk at the first internode above the brace roots, as hollow and deteriorated stalks will easily collapse when pinched.

With both the push and pinch tests, growers should test at least 20 plants in five representative locations within a field. Fields with 10 to 15 percent or more of the plants failing the push or pinch test are at risk for severe stalk lodging, and should be placed at the top of the harvest list to prevent harvesting downed corn later.

Insect resistance

Transgenic traits for insect resistance can be useful for protecting stalks and roots, but it’s important to note that these traits alone will only influence yield if there's pressure from the target pests.

Emergence

When selecting hybrids, growers should also consider emergence. Early planting is important for high corn yields, but the soil in late April is often cool and wet, causing many stresses on young seedlings. This makes strong emergence a key agronomic trait, particularly for fields with heavy soil and abundant surface residue that will be planted early.

Jeff Coulter, Extension agronomist

Thanks to the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and the Minnesota Corn Research and Promotion Council for their generous support of University of Minnesota corn production research and extension.

Reviewed in 2018

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