The Corn Belt moves north

Monsanto has plans to produce varieties that can be grown on half the acres in Western Canada

It might not look like it at first glance, but this nondescript boardroom in a steel building beside a busy highway in southern Manitoba is the heart of the western Canadian corn pipeline.

The site near Carman is home to Monsanto’s major corn expansion project, announced just over two years ago with much fanfare and the promise of $100 million in investment over 10 years.

Those are big numbers, especially when you consider what a relatively minor player this crop has been in Western Canada so far.

Sarah Gehlar and Rafael Mateo, seated around the table in that boardroom, are two of the individuals who are going to make major contributions to the science and crop-breeding program behind this push.

Gehlar is a North Dakotan by birth, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from North Dakota State University’s plant science program and a doctorate in plant breeding from Oregon State University. She’s been working with Monsanto since 2008 and is the project lead for North America’s early corn project, based out of a facility at Glyndon, Minnesota, just east of Fargo.

Mateo is a bit farther from his birthplace, a transplanted Guatemalan by way of Texas, where he studied. He now lives and works mainly in Guelph, Ont., where he’s been a commercial corn breeder the past nine years, and is now a proud Canadian citizen.

Gehlar says there’s been a lot of interest around the globe in seeing corn move north, including similar projects in Northern and Eastern Europe.

Better selection tools

Some say global warming is setting this stage, but Gehlar says from a breeding perspective that’s not what’s making things move.

“It’s all about the improvements in germplasm (as plant breeders call the living genetic materials they work with),” Gehlar told Country Guide. “We’ve seen really good results just next door in North Dakota with our products, and we think we could get good results here too.”

Mateo agrees, adding that identifying the opportunity is what’s led to this investment, and that the company’s financial commitment is key because all the modern breeding tools in the world won’t matter if no one’s willing to put their money where their mouth is.

“We have a lot more tools that let us screen for better material,” Mateo says. “But it has to be driven. Someone has to say, ‘We want you to screen for early corn.’ It doesn’t, and won’t, happen overnight. But when you see the potential and how significant it could be, you say, ‘We can do this.’”

What would good results look like? About 3.3 million acres of grain corn were planted across the entire country last year. Just over three million were in Ontario and Quebec, leaving just 300,000 in the West. If Monsanto and other life-science companies have their way, that number is going to get bigger — a lot bigger.

Monsanto says its corn could be suited for up to 26 million acres in Western Canada — about half the total. When rotation requirements are taken into account, they’re hoping for eight million to 10 million acres in 10 years. But to achieve that, a few things need to line up.

Challenges

The researchers need to tease out the genetic potential for corn to survive and even thrive on the northern plains.

Corn — or maize as it’s more commonly called in most of the world — is at its heart a tropical grass, first domesticated about 7,000 years ago in central Mexico. Its genetic basis is a wild grass called teosinte, which was similar but lacked the tightly packed ears of modern corn. Early Mesoamerican farmers such as the Mayans were drawn to this grass for a reason, most likely it was because they knew a robust plant when they saw it. But exactly what makes corn so robust takes more modern analysis.

For Allan Froese, Rafael Mateo and Sarah Gehlar, the 110 bushel-per-acre goal is just a start.

For Allan Froese, Rafael Mateo and Sarah Gehlar, the 110 bushel-per-acre goal is just a start.
photo: Gord Gilmour

Without getting too complex, corn is a warm-season grass, not a cool-season grass like wheat or barley which, like about 95 per cent of plants use the C3 photosynthesis pathway. They use sunlight to fix atmospheric carbon using one mechanism only, and only during daylight hours.

Corn is one of the C4 plants which use enzymes to further “process” the products of this initial phase, which can continue at night.

The hitch is that cool temperatures can shut this process down, hence the challenges in moving the crop farther north.

Making this biological package work on the Prairies will be one of the key challenges for breeders like Gehlar and Mateo, but they both seem confident it’s achievable. The other challenge, Gehlar says, will be making the crop productive enough to attract growers.

“Somewhere around 110 (bushels per acre) is our initial target. When you’re growing something new, it’s always a bit hard to say what you’ll get, but that’s the target where we think it will be of value to farmers and the market.”

That’s not on par with the heart of the U.S. Corn Belt and Ontario, where average yields can easily surpass 200 bushels per acre — but it is very close to recent annual averages of 110 and 124 bushels in North Dakota.

A yield of 110 bushels at the current price of C$4.50 would gross just under $500 per acre. Will that be enough to attract Canadian growers?

Corn could also be competing with the growing number of high-yielding wheats that are also creeping north from the U.S. Varieties like Faller are beginning to yield into the 80s, which could make the challenge that much greater for corn.

“I’m confident we can develop an early enough product for this area. Competing against wheat, I’m also confident we can deliver a productive enough one to make some additional revenue,” Mateo said.

“I can see that we’re moving forward. But you start with a target of maybe 110, and you get it. Then you aim for 120. And when you get that you think, ‘Can I get 130?’”

Learning curve

The second leg of the challenge will be providing extension advice for new growers. Here’s where Monsanto’s Allan Froese, a well-known corn agronomist in the Red River Valley, enters the conversation. The crop is already well established in the area, where conventional tillage remains common due to the heavy clay soils and ample to excessive moisture. Local growers are used to the crop, and have the equipment and infrastructure to deal with it.

“This is a row crop, and you’re going to need either a planter or access to one,” Froese says. “A lot of the growers here also grow soybeans, so at least they have a second crop to potentially share that expense.”

At 2016 prices, corn would generate a gross around $500 per acre.

At 2016 prices, corn would generate a gross around $500 per acre.
photo: Gord Gilmour

While that might be a bit of a hassle, it’s not likely a deal breaker since many new growers resort to custom planting for this crop, at least in the initial stages. But then there are other requirements, such as a corn header, enough storage for a high-yielding crop, and drying capacity.

Corn comes off sopping wet compared to other crops, typically somewhere between 20 and 27 per cent moisture. That needs to come down to between 14 and 15 per cent, which means hot air drying. Here there’s a bit of an infrastructure mismatch.

“Corn will likely be grown on the southern Prairies, where few growers have dryers at this time,” Froese said. “Ironically, it’s the growers farther north who do have dryers, but we’re not likely to see much corn there, at least not for a while.”

Another challenge will be how the crop fits into areas where canola is more common than soybeans, and zero tillage or minimum tillage is the order of the day. It’s likely going to take a few seasons of trial and error to hone the system into something that fits the geography, climate and cultural practices.

“It will definitely evolve over time,” Froese says. “Our goal will be to share as much information as possible with growers, to give them the best chance for success.”

Think local

That process will take time. Will Monsanto continue the heavy commitment to the breeding program for long enough to meet the objective?

Mark Lawton is the company’s Canadian technology development lead, and Dan Wright is the country’s trait launch lead. During a conference call from their offices in Guelph, both expressed confidence and interest in corn for the Prairies.

“It’s been a really fun and exciting transformation from just a few years ago,” Lawton says. “I think we’ve been able to get the right people in the right locations to do the research and begin providing results to growers.”

Lawton acknowledges that growers will need to see with their own eyes that the potential rewards will outstrip any risks. For that to happen, local investments like the ones the company have been making are necessary, he says.

“This will only happen with local research, developing new hybrids under local conditions,” he says.

Wright agrees, adding the local touch was going to require a combination of boots on the ground and patience on the part of the company.

“I think we’re developing some really good short-season hybrids, and they’ll get a good look from growers — there’s definitely grower interest,” Wright says. “But it’s also a long-term play. We’re not going to just produce a whack of seed and convince growers to give it a whirl — we want them to be successful, and that might mean moving a bit more slowly at first as they get their heads around the agronomics and the other ins and outs.”

Wright says growers in the region have demonstrated an admirable track record of adaptability and new crop adoption. Canola and pulses were small players at first, then really took off as growers gained a level of comfort watching their neighbours grow them.

“I think corn will likely follow a similar pattern,” Wright says. “We will see some early adopters experiment with it. They’ll have some successes and some failures and, over time, as they get better at it, and we produce better hybrids for them to work with, there will be more successes than failures… over time that comfort level will be established and, eventually, we may see a time when we see the same sort of exponential growth we saw in those other crops — but that’s likely still a few seasons away.”

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