China: How plant breeding is revolutionizing the corn harvest

Farmer Zhanwu Wang and a KWS seed consultant standing on a cornfield.

High planting density, standing power in a difficult climate and smaller corn cobs: Plant breeding and the targeted use of seeds bring Chinese farmers a more bountiful harvest and make it possible for them to rely more heavily on the use of machines. And with that, the days of hard field work are over for many people.

A straw hat throws a dark shadow onto the face of Zhanwu Wang, and the sun shines down on his back. The farmer stands in his field near Gongzhuling, a city in northeastern China that’s five times the size of Hamburg in terms of land mass, but with only half the population. Zhanwu Wang reflects on the past: “The physical labor was just too much.” Back when he was a child, his family was only able to farm a single hectare. It wasn’t easy to work more ground, he says. They didn’t have the machines or the right kinds of seeds. “Everything was done by hand,” Zhanwu Wang says. Now, he’s 40 years old and times have changed. The way corn is grown has changed. Targeted plant breeding has made farming more lucrative and made it possible to harvest using machines, which is significantly easier.

Strenuous harvests are a thing of the past

Today, the father of two stands next to his fully grown plants, which tower over him. The farmer believes that his home in the northeast of China is a good place to plant corn. Here, too, the grain is generally brought out onto the field and hauled back in by machines these days. There are certainly remote regions where harvests are still done by hand, but mechanization is in full swing, Zhanwu Wang says happily. “Before 2007, the percentage of cultivated areas prepared by machines was still at 7 percent – today, it’s 75 percent,” explains Changzheng Zhang, Head of Product Development at KWS China. The man in the plaid shirt knows all too well what has happened in China over the past few years. He was one of KWS’s first employees and heavily involved in building up the product development department there and farmers like Zhanwu Wang now profit from his work.

“It’s gotten easy to sow seeds onto 10 to 20 hectares in one day and to harvest more than 10 hectares each day,” the farmer says. This new level of efficiency through breeding makes his daily work easier and affords him more time for other tasks in his business. His parents were farmers as well, but the work was much more difficult in their day. After all, they had to pick every ear of corn by hand. Luckily, that’s no longer the case, he says. The strenuous job of lopping off piece by piece while doubled over, the effort of dragging the corn plants to the edge of the field and lining them up there – everyone was expected to lend a hand, and these memories are still fresh in the mind.

Most corn becomes animal feed

These days, combines harvest the corn hectare by hectare through precisely arranged rows of plants that – in some areas – seem to stretch all the way to the horizon. Despite that, the kernel harvest of grain corn makes up only a low single-digit percentage of the total corn production in China. Even though that is a fairly small proportion, “this figure is almost exclusively driven by the early hybrid varieties from KWS that are sold in the northern Chinese regions of Xinjiang and Heilongjiang,” explains Changzheng Zhang.

With a population of roughly 1.4 billion and steadily improving living conditions, there is an increasing demand for meat, and thereby for corn. “After all, the majority of corn kernels end up being fed to livestock,” says Hong Zhang, General Manager of KWS China. He notes that corn is also used in the food industry or processed into bioethanol.

Climate presents difficult challenge for breeders

A variety tailored to the local climate is essential if there is going to be any chance of a successful corn harvest. That is a challenge for plant breeders and farmers, particularly in China, where the climate zones are all across the board: from the temperate north to the deserts, tropics and subtropics of the southern regions. To approach this task, KWS teamed up with the Chinese seed specialist Kenfeng to form a joint venture. They work through the regions step by step, from the early ripening periods in the temperate north to the later ripening periods in the southern regions.

The hurdles that he and his fellow farmers face apart from the weather and the ground composition are all too familiar to Zhanwu Wang: In his region, corn’s greatest enemies are a fungus that affects the leaves and the destructive European corn borer – a moth that heavily preys on corn. The latter is a pest in the strongest sense of the word, Zhanwu Wang says. “A climate with a very dry spring and a very windy fall make it easier for these types of pests to spread.”

Sturdy plants, smaller cobs

He describes the varieties offered by KWS as resistant to most diseases and of really high quality. In addition, there is a wide range of other positive aspects: Not only are they sturdier, the cobs are also a different size, explains Hong Zhang. “They are smaller than the hybrid varieties from local suppliers, and dry down faster,” he says, which makes them easier to harvest with a machine. The advantage here is that fewer become moldy. All of those things make the lives of farmers in China easier. “Planting and harvesting with machines eases much of the burden on the farmers, guarantees stable performance and boosts the quality of the corn.”

A chopper drives through a cornfield at dusk.

Mechanical harvesting has made it easy to sow ten to twenty hectares a day and harvest more than ten hectares a day.

From a lower to higher planting density

KWS supports farmers with varieties that will also grow in areas in which corn had never thrived before. “In doing so, we offer farmers a great opportunity to grow corn, which is more profitable than growing soybeans,” Changzheng Zhang says. This progress is also palpable in Xinjiang, a region in the northwest corner of China. The hybrid varieties there have completely transformed the approach to farming in that region from a low planting density in the past to a very high one now, he says. “Of course, we hope that there will be even more opportunities in the future for farmers to plant corn in more areas of the country,” Changzheng Zhang says.

“Fewer workers, more machines”

How will corn cultivation evolve in the future? “Fewer people working in the fields, more machines, better quality control, more silo corn,” Hong Zhang says. That’s how it is in the United States, and that’s where China is increasingly heading. According to recent numbers, China ranked second in annual corn production worldwide with roughly 257 million metric tons of corn – right after the United States.

Fewer farmers with more land

Ever since China introduced its economic reform policies a few years ago, farming has changed as well. Before the country was opened up to the West, roughly 80 percent of its population worked in agriculture, and now it’s down to 40 percent, Changzheng Zhang says.

“That shows us that the urbanization process has accelerated and the portion of the population living in rural areas is shrinking.” However, at the same time, the overall amount of agricultural land remains the same. Thus, fewer farmers are faced with having to farm significantly more land, which certainly poses a nearly impossible challenge for those harvesting by hand.

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