Hybrid Versus Open-pollinated Corn Varieties

Hybrid Corn Varieties
Hybrid corn varieties were widely adopted across North America during the 1950s thanks to the higher yields they offered in comparison to open-pollinated varieties. By the 1970s, high-yielding hybrids led to corn becoming the dominant grain crop in regions with adequate precipitation (or irrigation) and longer growing seasons. By the early 2000s, the development of hybrids that consistently produce well in low soil moisture conditions allowed corn production to expand into dryland grain areas across the Southern and Central High Plains.

A number of biotechnology innovations have permitted corn yields to rise consistently year after year. These innovations include triple-stacked hybridization and GM traits (notably Bt and herbicide resistance). A number of other innovations during the past two decades have also contributed to yield increases, including precision agriculture technology and more precise N fertilizer applications throughout the growing season.

While these innovations have led to unprecedented yields, hybrid varieties can have drawbacks when it comes to production and harvest costs. Hybrid corn varieties have significant input costs including large N fertilizer requirements and high seed costs, for example. Additionally, the high yields of contemporary hybrids can often lead to increased harvesting, shipping, and storage costs.

Open-pollinated corn varieties

Thanks to the yield advantages of hybrid varieties, it would seem that open-pollinated corn would no longer have a place in commercial production systems. Yields of open-pollinated corn can never match contemporary hybrids. However, there has been a revival of interest in open-pollinated corn varieties for some use cases thanks to some advantages they offer. These advantages include potentially lower seed costs, lower N requirements, and superior qualities for human consumption.  

Seed Cost and Variety Selection

Most open-pollinated varieties are produced at very small scales, leading to high seed costs that are hardly competitive with hybrids. However, one commercial corn breeder in Michigan is currently producing open-pollinated seed corn that is cost competitive with hybrids.

Another advantage of open-pollinated corn is that even though initial seed costs may be high, it is possible for a farm to meet its seed corn needs through the selection of desirable traits on farm and then scaling seed production up over several years. While producing seed corn for on-farm use is time and labor-intensive, the longer-term cost savings and the development of unique traits may be worth the additional effort.

Lower N requirements
Due to lower yields, open-pollinated corn has significantly lower N requirements. However, another factor may be at play – recent research has demonstrated that newer crop varieties tend to have poor root development because robust root development is not prioritized by commercial grain breeders. This poor root development in turn leads to poor N uptake. It is unknown if this principle applies to corn. However, it may be a factor to consider if reducing N application rates is a priority.

Superior Qualities
Outside of potentially lower production costs, open pollinated varieties have superior food qualities when compared to hybrids. For specialty markets where grain qualities for human consumption are prioritized, open-pollinated varieties have a clear advantage over hybrids. Whether corn will be milled into cornmeal or nixtamalized for hominy or masa, taste, texture, scent, and color are the most important factors for food processors and manufacturers.
There is a growing demand amongst distillers for specialty corn. Small-scale distilleries are increasingly seeking out open-pollinated corn varieties for the terroir that they can lend to various types of corn-based liquors, such as whiskey and bourbon. This is akin to wine makers using grape varieties produced under specific soil and climate conditions to create unique and high-value finished products. If a farm business is interested in producing open-pollinated corn for high-value food or alcohol products, there is a significant amount of profit potential for cleaning and bagging grain on farm. This would allow for the sale of a relatively unique and high-quality product that could be milled, nixtamalized, or fermented immediately upon delivery to buyers.

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