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Drought and Heat Stress

August 9, 2019

One of the corn production scenarios agronomists least like is an exceptionally wet spring followed by a hotter and drier than normal July and August. The spring of 2019 was one the wettest on records throughout much of the state and now, as the dry weather that started in July persists, such a scenario seems to be a possibility in many Ohio corn fields. A combination of warm temperatures and inadequate rainfall is beginning to stress corn fields across Ohio. What’s exacerbating this problem are the marginal roots evident in some corn fields. Several factors, including poor planting conditions, surface/sidewall compaction and/or excessively wet soil conditions in June have inhibited good root development in many fields. With the onset of drier, warmer conditions in July, these small, shallow root systems have been unable to extract water deeper in the soil profile. Cooler weather and the possibility of storms later in the week may ease drought stress, which is important because many late planted corn fields (planted throughout June) are near or entering the pollination period, the stage of development most susceptible to drought. Other fields past pollination are vulnerable to kernel abortion, which drought conditions increase.

Corn is at many different stages of development because of the wide range in planting dates. To estimate the impact of dry hot weather on corn yield potential, let us review the effects of moisture deficits on corn growth and development from the late vegetative stages, prior to pollination, to the dent stage of kernel development. Yield losses to moisture stress can be directly related to the number of days that the crop shows stress symptoms during different growth periods. The following summarizes findings of past Iowa work that shows the potential impact of water stress on yield potential.

Vegetative Stages: According to the most recent NASS report for the week ending August 4, 53% of Ohio’s corn had silked (compared to 87% for the five year average). Some of the corn planted in mid to late June or later is still vegetative. During the later vegetative stages, when kernel numbers per ear are determined, plants become more sensitive to stress. According to the Iowa research, four days of severe stress (i.e. corn wilted for four consecutive days) at the 12th-14th leaf stage has the potential of reducing yields by 5 to 10 percent. Kernel row numbers on the ear are determined by the 12th collared leaf stage and the potential number of kernels per row is complete about one week before silking.

Tassel Emergence: As the tip of the tassel begins to emerge from the whorl, the upper stalk internodes rapidly elongate and the ears begin to expand. Silks from the base of the ears are also rapidly elongating. Four days of moisture stress at this stage has the potential to reduce yields 10 to 25%.

Silk Emergence to Pollen Shed: At this stage, leaves and tassels are fully emerged and the cobs and silks are growing rapidly. This is the most critical period in terms of moisture use by the plant. Four days of severe moisture stress at this stage has the potential to reduce yields 40 to 50%.

Blister through Dent Stage of Kernel Development: About 12 to 36 days after silking, the cobs, husks and shanks are fully developed and the kernels are increasing in dry weight. Moisture stress will reduce kernel fill from the ear tip down. Four days of drought at the blister stage has the potential of reducing yields 30 to 40%, and at dough stage, 20 to 30%.

Where early season conditions contributed to corn stands with uneven emergence and development, yield losses may be higher depending on various factors such as the length of emergence delays and the percentage and distribution of later emerging plants. Where there is considerable variability in plant size, smaller, stunted plants will be at a competitive disadvantage with larger plants for nutrients, water and sunlight.

Drought stressed corn near tassel emergence

Source: Ohio State University