Review of drought-tolerant corn hybrids: Yield benefits

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Drought may not be on the minds of producers across the state given the current soil moisture levels. However, the growing season is long and drought could become a problem later in the season. Based on the soil moisture profile and weather forecast conditions, it would be very unlikely to see drought issues until the late vegetative or reproductive stages for corn this year. Nonetheless, this article emphasizes the importance of understanding your hybrids and hybrid selection for improving yields. One of the main points to highlight for the current growing conditions is that drought tolerant (DT) hybrids have the potential to yield similarly to non-DT hybrids when water is not limiting.

In recent years, drought conditions have raised questions about the utilization of corn as the main crop for maximizing yield production per unit of available water in dryland environments.

Non-transgenic, conventionally bred, “drought-tolerant” (DT) corn hybrids from Pioneer and Syngenta were released to the market with the expectation of increasing corn production in water-limited regions. Monsanto also released biotech transgenic DT hybrids.

Overall, the information from seed companies indicates that DT hybrids could provide from 2 to more than 15 percent yield increase over “competitor hybrids” in non-limiting and water-limiting environments, respectively.

K-State research conducted over the 2012-2015 growing seasons across the state has recently been summarized, and this summary is available in a K-State Research and Extension publication (discussed at the end of this article). The objective of this article is to present an overview of the DT vs. non-DT responses to management practices such as plant population and irrigation.

The information below is intended to provide some guidance to farmers, consultants, and agronomists in making the right decision for selecting corn hybrids. In addition, we hope to develop a better understanding of the kinds of environments in which DT hybrids could be most likely to result in a yield benefit. These hybrids are generally targeted for water-limited environments in the Western Great Plains.


Our research compared DT hybrids from diverse companies with a standard non-DT counterpart of similar maturity. The tests also evaluated the yield response to varying plant population and irrigation levels.

At the plant scale, our analysis did not reveal any change in the plant response to plant population between DT and non-DT hybrids. This indicates no need to change plant population when using DT hybrids.

We also analyzed yields at the plot level for DT vs. comparable non-DT hybrids with similar maturity. The information presented in the figure below (Figure 1) depicts the association of the yields for the DT vs. non-DT corn hybrids: Yellow points = research plots (2012-2013); blue points = on-farm plots; green points = 2014; red points = 2015 growing season plots.

Overall, the analysis found a yield benefit of 3 percent for DT vs. non-DT hybrids under diverse environments and stress conditions across Kansas during the 2012-2015 seasons. In absolute terms, the yield advantage of using DT hybrids was around 5 bushels per acre compared to the non-DT material. Similar yield trends were observed in research plots and on-farm demonstration plots. A great proportion of DT and non-DT yields were similar -- within a 5% confidence interval as highlighted in Figure 1 -- except in low-yielding and high-yielding environments. In low yielding-environments, DT out-yielded non-DT corn hybrids more often compared to the situation in higher-yield environments.

Figure 1. Yield for the DT versus non-DT corn hybrids across site-years for the 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 growing seasons.

DT vs. non-DT corn hybrids: Yield environment analysis

The analysis of information across diverse yield environments allows us to more clearly understand where there would be a yield advantage from planting DT hybrids. It is clear from Figure 2 that the yield advantage of DT corn hybrids increases as the yield potential of the crop decreases. This graph shows that there is basically no yield difference between DT and non-DT hybrids when yields are around 170 bushels per acre or greater. The yield advantage for DT hybrids gradually increases as the yield of the regular hybrids decreases from 170 bushels per acre.

However, it is important to note that these are generalized relationships and that there are varied responses at each yield level. Some individual points show no difference between DT vs. non-DT hybrids at yields around 100 bushels per acre. Other points show a 30-bushel-per-acre yield advantage for non-DT hybrids at 160 to 170 bushels per acre, and still others show a 60-bushel-per-acre yield advantage for DT hybrids when non-DT hybrid yields were near 70 bushels per acre. On the opposite side of the yield environments, under high yield environments (>220 bushel-per-acre), individual points show a 30 to 60-bushel-per acre yield advantage for non-DT hybrids when DT hybrid yields were above 220 bushels per acre. How individual hybrids respond to a specific environment is influenced by a number of factors, including the timing and duration of the stress.

One more technical clarification is important to note. The linear response and plateau (LRP) function model fitted in Figure 2 (adjusted to the 2012-2013 data), presented an R2 of 0.26 units, which can be interpreted to indicate that this model is accounting for only slightly more than one-fourth of the total variation presented in the data. Even when including observations from studies conducted in the last two years (2014-2015), the trend observed in the DT yield advantage versus the non-DT yield values (Figure 2) is not being modified. From all these years of data collection and analysis, we can conclude that there are many management factors involved in the yield results which makes it difficult to separate out the effect of hybrid alone.

Figure 2. Yield advantage for DT compared to non-DT corn hybrids in the same environment and at the same population, ranging from low-yielding environments to high-yielding environments across site-years for the 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 growing seasons.


Still, we need to be cautious using and interpreting this information. More experiments and research data need to be collected, and a deeper understanding is needed to more properly analyze the main causes of the yield differences of DT vs. non-DT corn genotypes. Potential interpretations offered for the yield advantage for the DT corn hybrids in certain environments are:

  • Slower vegetative growth, saving water for reproductive stages (stress avoidance)
  • Greater root biomass with superior water uptake
  • Differential regulation in the stomata opening, controlling water and CO2 exchange processes
  • Other potential physiological modifications


K-State Research and Extension publication

A publication titled Drought-tolerant corn hybrids: Yield benefits was published by K-State Research and Extension in 2017. This publication was supported by Kansas Corn Commission.

This publication presents research information conducted by K-State Research and Extension to evaluate drought-tolerant hybrids in a wide range of production environments. You can view the publication at



General observations:

1) Performance of individual hybrids within DT and non-DT types may vary. Some non-DT hybrids can perform nearly as well as the DT hybrids even in stressful conditions, and DT hybrids have the potential to yield with non-DT hybrids when water isn’t limiting.

2) The advantage of the DT hybrids became more evident when the water stress increased to the point of leaves rolling most days.

3) From the information at hand, it is reasonable to expect a DT hybrid to serve as a type of insurance policy to sustain yield potential under water-limited environments. It also appears that there is no yield penalty associated with DT hybrids if water-limiting conditions do not occur.

Lastly, it is critical to understand that these corn genetic materials will not produce yield if the environment is subjected to terminal drought. We cannot expect them to thrive when moisture is severely limited, especially in dryland systems. As properly and explicitly stated by all seed companies, these DT materials have demonstrated the ability maintain yields to a certain degree in water-limited situations, and those yield differences will likely be in the order of 5 to 15 bushels per acre (depending on the environments and crop practices), when compared with a similar maturity non-DT corn hybrid.


Ignacio Ciampitti, Crop Production and Cropping Systems Specialist

Eric Adee, Agronomist-In-Charge, Kansas River Valley and East Central Experiment Fields

Kraig Roozeboom, Cropping Systems Agronomist

Alan Schlegel, Agronomist-in-Charge, Southwest Research-Extension Center, Tribune

Stu Duncan, Northeast Area Crops and Soils Specialist

Tags:  corn yield drought