Adapting agriculture in a changing climate

By Harold Watters, Ohio State University Extension

I had the opportunity this year to observe and discuss the growing of corn in three separate locations across the globe.

  1. Here in Ohio, where I work for OSU Extension,
  2. In Ukraine where I had the opportunity to visit in March and again in August
  3. And in Nevada where I visited in early December.

Corn is an adaptable crop and is grown on almost every continent in the world. Its origins are here in the “new world” — corn was not observed by Europeans until after the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. Reports I have read say he saw the crop in the West Indies. I am not sure if this was on his first voyage, but certainly the time period is around 1500. At any rate, it was a long time ago.

In Ohio, growers report varied yield results in 2012, mostly varied by planting date, and by when or if rain fell. The state yield should be around 122 bushels per acre after all the dust settles. This is up from my estimate from visits I made to western Ohio growers at harvest. Many good managers there averaged from 80 to 90 bushels per acre. Being good managers, they planted in mid- to late- April so the crop suffered under the heat at pollination. My neighbors in central Ohio fared better. They know the problems we have with emergence with April plantings so they delayed planting until May and missed the most severe heat.

As noted in “Irrigation Management for Corn,” by William L. Kranz and others at the University of Nebraska, corn needs about 25 inches of water to produce maximum yield. Very little is needed in the early season and is maxed out at about 0.35 inch per day at tassel. Thankfully we don’t need to supply all of this water, and they don’t in Nebraska either, but they will often apply from 8 to 14 inches there. In Nevada this past year for some corn trials, they were applying 36 inches by irrigation, and they have an average rainfall of 5 inches, so they had plenty even though they were in a desert. Yields were 180 to 240 bushels per acre.

But irrigation in Nevada is limited by snowmelt that flows into the Humboldt River from the mountains to the east of the Rye Patch Reservoir. So, depending on snowfall you might have 36 inches of irrigation water one year and six inches the next. And due to the vagaries of the weather, you may not know until a month before your planting date exactly how many inches of water might head your way.

In Ukraine, they also suffered from weather inconsistencies. Even though they are north of us, and typically north of 45 degrees north latitude to perhaps 52 degrees north, they were as hot and as dry as us this summer. To make matters worse, their use of excessive tillage reduced soil available water.

Here in Ohio, we actually have some irrigation systems going in, on the gravel or sandy soils and in other areas where adequate water can be had, either from groundwater or a river. I asked one producer who installed a pivot, “how much?” He said about the same per acre as tile. And certainly we have been making investments in improvements as we have made a few more dollars per acre these past three or four years.

We also have to manage for dryer conditions if you believe the climatologists. We may be entering a climatic period of warmer and dryer summers, at least according to some. This year may be a start to what we see coming over the next 25 to 30 years. Although as of now we are told to expect a normal winter and normal summer for next year. But everyone knows “normal” doesn’t exist anymore.

How do we manage for drier conditions?

  • Conserve water
  • Plant drought tolerant hybrids?
  • Better genetics with bigger root systems?
  • No till, certainly.

One chance to look at genetics is in a trial I have conducted over the past couple of years comparing “antique” genetics to modern hybrids. The antique is Reid’s yellow dent, a very popular open pollinated hybrid from a century ago. Grown under low populations I can get about 93 to 96 bushels per acre. As I increase seeding rates to 31,000 and higher the yield actually goes down for the Reid’s yellow dent. The modern hybrid, for 2012 it was Pioneer 1395XR, yielded in the 170’s at low populations, but 200 plus at what we consider normal seeding rates today.


Table 1. Comparisons in 2012 of Pioneer 1395XR to Reid’s yellow dent across a range of populations at the Western Agricultural Research Station; yield in bushels/acre.

Yield bu/A

seeding rate















LSD 0.1



We have also seen this seeding rate effect before; it really doesn’t pay to short your seeding rates on modern hybrids. Some of us had reduced emergence this year with that one hard downpour we had in late April, it probably showed up in yield. For what it’s worth I will admit that the Western Station at South Charleston had great rains late season and this trial was planted May 11.

So to prepare for the unknown, growers should plan to use good genetics, with high yield capabilities and choose reduced till production systems to save your water for late season grain fill. Don’t do those practices that waste water, such as excessive tillage. Excessive tillage also has the potential to create surface compaction, leading to reduced infiltration.

And this winter take the time to listen to a climatologist, not your local weatherman, but a climatologist who takes a long term outlook. The one I listened to just today said, “We are returning to weather patterns of the 1950s.” Some folks were still growing the Reid’s yellow dent open pollinated corn then. My guess is that growers in Ohio won’t need irrigation but we had better become better managers of what water we do have.

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