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Hallauer worked in the golden age of plant breeding

By Jean Caspers-Simmet
simmet@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 04/04/2013 7:32 PM

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NASHUA, Iowa —Arnel Hallauer said he didn't realize it at the time but he worked in the golden era of plant breeding.

"I was lucky," he said at last week's annual meeting of the Northeast Iowa Agricultural Experimental Association in the Borlaug Center on the Northeast Research Farm near Nashua.

Hallauer was a corn breeder for USDA/Iowa State University in Ames from 1958 to 2002. At last week's meeting he spoke about genetics in corn hybrid development.

Hallauer is a retired ISU distinguished professor, a member of the National Academy of Science, and a member of the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Science Hall of Fame. He still works as a corn breeder.

W.A. Russell, a corn breeder in Ames from 1952 to 1988, and Hallauer developed B57, B64, B68, B73, B77, B79, B84, B97 and B104.

Hallauer is credited with influencing plant breeders worldwide through his teachings, publications and breeding accomplishments. His book, "Quantitative Genetics in Maize Breeding," is a standard textbook for breeders.

Corn inbred lines derived from Hallauer's research produce an estimated $1 billion for U.S. farmers and are used in all major corn areas, including Europe and China.

Hallauer got his start in corn breeding as a 14-year-old when he took a detasseling job at Kansas State University. He received a bachelor's in plant science at KSU. His master's and doctoral degrees were in plant breeding at ISU.

Hallauer said corn breeding began 10,000 years ago when people started settling into communities. The first corn breeding took place in south central Mexico and northern Guatemala. Teosinte, a wild weedy grass, is the early progenitor of corn.

The U.S. Corn Belt Dents were derived from Northern Flints, the corn grown in New England when the Pilgrims arrived (likely brought there from the southwest as Indian tribes moved about) and Tuxpeno, grown in Eastern Mexico and eventually to the southeast United States.

The open pollinated Northern Flints and Southern Dents were commingled as settlers moved West. Reid Yellow Dent won first prize at the World's Fair in Chicago around 1900. Lancaster Sure Crop, Iodent, Leaming and Osterland were among the 100 distinct open pollinated varieties available by 1900.

The problem was that from 1865 to 1935 corn yields didn't increase. With growing demand for corn, researchers began looking for ways to increase yield.

Starting in 1922 the USDA created corn breeding programs at state experiment stations to develop higher yielding corn. Researchers developed inbred lines, tested those in crosses, identified the best crosses and made those available to producers.

From 1922 to 1962, the experiment stations and USDA were the main contributors to developing hybrid lines and methods.

Hallauer said that from 1865 to 1935 yields improved just 0.02 bushels per acre per year. From 1935 to 1965 with double crosses, yields increased 1.01 bushels per acre per year. Improved corn breeding techniques using single crosses resulted in yield increases of 1.81 bushels per acre per year from 1965 to 1995.

From 1995 to 2005 biotechnology came on the scene with Roundup Ready and Bt traits and yields began increasing by 3.30 bushels per acre per year.

"You've heard the commentators and public relations people saying that by 2030 we'll have 300 bushel per acre corn," Hallauer said. "Is it feasible? I look at the last five years 148 bushels per acre U.S. yield. We'll have to have an annual rate of gain of 6.60 bushels per acre, pretty near double what we've had previously."

An ISU study in the 1980s and 1990s showed that 50 percent to 60 percent of hybrid improvement was due to genetic improvement. Husbandry from farmers' good work accounted for 40 percent to 50 percent.

Hallauer said that the seed industry says that in the future biotechnology will be responsible for 45 to 60 percent of yield improvement, plant breeders 15 percent and growers 15 percent.

"We'll shall see," he said.

Hallauer said that corn genome, which has been completely sequenced, has 30 billion base pairs and an estimated 50,000 genes or 600,000 base pairs per gene.

"Bt and Roundup encouraged researchers to look at molecular biology, but with traits like yield and drought tolerance all 50,000 genes may be involved," Hallauer said. "Plant breeding will always be important for developing the complete package, incorporating the traits developed in molecular genetics with the newer genotypes developed from the traditional breeding program."