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Mike Blanco pollinates maize. Link to photo information
Geneticist Mike Blanco pollinates tropical exotic maize as a first step in breeding corn with improved disease resistance, nutritional quality, and bioenergy potential. Click the image for more information about it.

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High-Quality Corn for Low-Input Farming Systems

By Sharon Durham
July 11, 2007

To help family farmers and seed producers better meet market demands and remain independent and profitable, a new initiative is under way. Spearheaded by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) plant geneticist Linda Pollak, it’s being called the Breeding High-Quality Corn for Sustainable, Low-Input Farming Systems—or HQ-LIFS—project.

Pollak and other scientists in the ARS Corn Insects and Crop Genetics Research Unit, Ames, Iowa, are collaborating on HQ-LIFS with Iowa State University scientists at Ames and the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wis. The Practical Farmers of Iowa help with on-farm testing.

The goal of HQ-LIFS is to boost corn's nutritional content while making it more compatible with sustainable farming systems. The researchers mainly focus on breeding new plants that will provide smaller scale producers with corn, or maize, containing specific traits expected to soon be in high demand—such as for better organic feed grains and specialty uses. Corn varieties for feed and specialty markets that can be grown using small amounts of fertilizer are crucial.

In breeding experiments, scientists are selecting for responses to two factors: slowly available forms of nitrogen, and weed pressure. Because some states regulate the use of nitrogen fertilizers and the cost of fertilizer is escalating, all growers could benefit from corn varieties that yield well with slowly available nitrogen sources, such as organic manures, or with lower amounts of applied fertilizer.

New varieties from the three-year-old HQ-LIFS program can also contribute traits required for reliable production under alternative farming systems, such as organic farming. The Ames group is breeding specialty varieties—like white corn and high- methionine corn for organic poultry producers—that will provide new market possibilities.

Pollak envisions forming groups of farmers, seed companies and processors to grow, test and evaluate varieties resulting from the program.

Read more about the research in the July 2007 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.