CHANCELLOR, S.D. - Jeff Spieler studies and teaches corn characteristics. He'll even refer to the plant as having blonde hair and blue eyes.
"What I mean by that," he said, "is the traits we're looking for. Does it have yield potential, drought tolerance and disease tolerance?"
On a recent muggy August morning, Spieler checked in at a training site, a plot of land near Chancellor, where rows of different types of his Asgrow corn are stretched tall.
Spieler is a technical agronomist for Dekalb and Asgrow. His job is to help growers select the best products to obtain maximum yield potential by showing how seeds grow in variable conditions. And what he's seeing is a trend across much of South Dakota this year: It's going to be one heck of a good corn crop.
Due to timely precipitation, moderate heat and highly advanced seeds, the state's corn crop is expected to be a record this year. That's according to a United States Department of Agriculture report, released Friday, Aug. 10, that predicts the statewide yield to average a record 170 bushels per acre, a 17 percent increase from 2017.
In the past 10 years, South Dakota's average corn yield record has been set four times, with 2016's 161 bushels per acre holding the standard now.
While Mother Nature ultimately determines whether plants will grow, seeing a maximum-potential year has always been exciting for Spieler.
"It's interesting to see what that potential is, and we don't always know what that is until we have a year like this, to set that next benchmark or set the bar," he said.
Spieler manages three training sites - Chancellor, Dell Rapids and Ethan. At each location are plants with dozens of variables and a different environment. For instance, some corn had a longer maturity length in hopes of getting a higher yield. Other corn has a shorter growing season.
He works for Monsanto, an agricultural biotechnology corporation headquartered in St. Louis. The company was acquired by Bayer earlier this year, but the integration of Monsanto into Bayer will not take place until all subsidiary business interests have been sold, according to a spokesman from Monsanto.
In the past five years, Monsanto has spent approximately $8 billion in research and development for seeds and genomics. That's more than $4 million per day to develop its products worldwide.
The investment is worth it, according to Joe Schefers, regional agronomy lead at Monsanto, based in Brookings. Nine agronomists, including Spieler, report directly to Schefers, whose territory includes North Dakota, South Dakota and northern Minnesota.
Testing and education sites are just a percentage of the research being conducted by Monsanto to help growers reach higher yields. Schefers explained that seeds can take between 5 and 10 years to fully develop, with the vast majority failing to ever hit the market. The company has seed breeding sites all over the world, including in Asia, Hawaii, South America and Europe.
In South Dakota, corn seed with herbicide tolerance is a key component to helping achieve record yields, Schefers said. Developed in the late 1990s, that trait ensured the average bushel per acre topped triple digits all but two years since 2000.
Better farming practices, such as no-till and timely planting, are factors, too, Schefers said.
"Herbicide resistance in general has done more for the state of South Dakota than many of the other things because it gives a grower confidence; it stabilizes their yield," Schefers said. "We're seeing an increased yield, but frankly, it's stable yields that gives them confidence to shoot for more."
Consistency is a pattern for corn yields. In the past five years, the statewide average yield ranged only between 137 and 161 bushels per acre.
"We want stable yield, and we do that by a lot of different methods, but in corn it's push more plants out there per acre," Schefers said. "Make them build a corn ear come hell or high water."
Great weather, great results
South Dakota State Climatologist Laura Edwards said South Dakota has seen some weather variability across the state, including some drought in the north-central part of the state and some flooding in the south.
"The Mitchell area seems to be in the 'Goldilocks zone,' so to speak, with almost perfect weather all around," Edwards said. But she acknowledges much of the state will see a good year for growing.
According to the National Weather Service, Mitchell has received a total of 7.89 inches of precipitation since May 1, a time many South Dakota growers aim for corn planting.
In addition to the well-timed rain are the moderate temperatures, as Mitchell has seen temperatures above 95 degrees only three times: May 26, May 27 and July 11, a yearly high thus far of 99.
It's a year like this, so far, that will bring those advanced seeds to their full potential, Spieler said.
"I think about when I started, you grew every seed out, physically looked at the characteristics, the drought and disease tolerance," Spieler said. "Now we use molecular markers, basically mapping the plant.
"We take the seed, take a notch out of it, analyze the DNA, and we're looking for the things we identify as being good-the blonde hair, the blue eyes-like drought and disease tolerance. If it doesn't have what we want, we throw it out. That alone has changed the business dramatically."
South Dakota average corn yield
*In bushels per acre
- Source: United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service