How can Iowa farmers combat the hurricane-force winds of a derecho? Plant shorter, more wind-resistant corn

Donnelle Eller
Des Moines Register

Iowa farmers who disked under thousands of acres of corn flattened in last summer's derecho could soon get access to plants that proved more resistant to the hurricane-force winds.

Bayer AG, the German conglomerate that purchased the St. Louis-based Monsanto agricultural biotech company in 2016, says fields of "short-stature corn" at 18 Iowa test sites within the path of the derecho suffered comparatively little damage in the Aug. 10 storm.

"The vast majority (of fields) survived very well and were in most cases very harvestable" while in "many cases, the tall corn was unharvestable," said David Mack, Bayer's short-stature corn project lead.

A photo from Bayer AG shows a derecho-damaged Iowa field where short-stature corn fared better than the longer-stalked variety.

Pointing at a photo of an Iowa test plot, Bob Reiter, who leads Bayer's crop science research division, said in a recent online briefing: "It's the corn essentially in those rows that's still standing" after getting hit with winds "well over 100 miles per hour."

Iowa farmers were unable to harvest an estimated 850,000 acres of corn last year after the powerful storm swept eastward across the middle third of the state, knocking out power for thousands, crumpling massive grain bins and smashing into homes, schools and businesses.

Bayer's short corn isn't "completely derecho-proof," Mack said this week, noting that "If the winds are blowing down oak trees and grain silos, corn will come down, too." But it performed better than tall corn growing next to it, he said.

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The storm traveled nearly 800 miles, expending most of its strength in Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin and especially Iowa. Winds gusted to around 140 mph in parts of the state

Bayer is not alone in noting the relative durability of shorter corn in the derecho. Stine Seed, an Adel company founded by Harry Stine, who's become the richest man in Iowa, said its iconic short-stature corn with pineapple-spiked leaves also performed well under the grueling real-world test.

Several farmers reported that "Stine hybrids did really well, relative to neighboring fields," said Stine spokesman David Thompson.

Thompson cautioned that the shorter corn wasn't bred "to withstand 130- or 140-mile-an-hour straight-line wind. They aren't designed to do that."

But the hybrids appear to have certain advantages. Mack said the Bayer plants' shorter stature and sturdier root system likely helped them remain standing.

"It's not as big of a kite, if you will, as tall corn is," Mack said. "It's shorter, and there's less surface area for the wind to grab onto."

Mack said Bayer's short-stature corn is about 7 feet tall; Stine's corn is 7 to 7.5 feet tall. Iowa corn often grows up to 12 feet high.

Bayer expects to begin rolling out its short-stature corn in 2023. 

Stine's short corn tends to have higher stalk strength and a more compact root structure, Thompson said, but it's a byproduct of developing seed designed for denser planting.

Corn growers typically plant about 35,000 seeds per acre in rows that are 30 inches apart. Farmers push Stine seed counts to 60,000 or more per acre in rows as close as 15 inches. The company encoura farmers to add more ears of corn per acre to boost yields and their return on investment.

Stine's high-population seed is able to handle the stress of competing with nearby plants for sunlight, water and nutrients. For example, the plants' leaves grow upright to capture more sun.

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"What we're looking for is plants that handle stress really well," Thompson said. "So what we find is these plants also are typically better able to withstand several other types of stressors" such as heat, drought, wind and adverse weather.

But not all short corn is the same, Thompson said. "It's like saying everyone who's tall is good at basketball," he said.

Mack said Bayer's short-stature corn isn't designed to be planted in high populations. Yields are the same as taller corn but could hold up better with adverse weather, since the plants are better able to stand and be harvested. 

Last fall's harvest took days, even weeks longer, as farmers struggled to combine flattened corn. Many farmers — unable to harvest their downed corn crop — instead disked it under to try to prevent the kernels from sprouting.

Farmers growing row crops this year potentially face thousands of volunteer corn plants in their fields. Any plant that's not the crop planted is considered a weed.

Mack said Bayer's short-stature corn enables farmers to bring equipment into their fields in late summer to apply fertilizer, insecticide or fungicide. It helps farmers reduce costs by applying chemicals and nutrients only as the plants need them.

Mack believes that Iowa farmers will adjust to shorter corn, given the plants' hardiness. Scientists warn that climate change will likely bring more extreme weather, including more droughts and floods.

"We think the opportunities it affords is really exciting," he said.

Thompson said Stine firmly believes that growing higher-population corn is how farmers will meet increased demand for food. The global population is expected to grow to 9 billion people by 2050, about 2 billion more than now.

"If you can increase productivity on the acre that you have already, that's one less acre you've got to clear for corn somewhere else," Thompson said.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at or 515-284-8457.