Harvest index has increased over the last 50 years of maize breeding

Alejo Ruiz, Slobodan Trifunovic, Douglas M. Eudy, Cintia S. Sciarresi, Mitchell Baum, Gerasimos J.N. Danalatos, Elvis F. Elli, Georgios Kalogeropoulos, Kyle King, Caio dos Santos, August Thies, Lia Olmedo Pico, Michael J. Castellano, Patrick S. Schnable, Christopher Topp, Michael Graham, Kendall R. Lamkey, Tony J. Vyn, Sotirios V. Archontoulis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Context: Quantifying historical changes in maize harvest index (HI), the fraction of above-ground biomass allocated to grain yield, can enhance our ability to explain grain yield trends and estimate stover carbon inputs for sustainability assessments. However, the HI genetic gain has not been the primary focus of previous era studies. Objective: The aim of this study is to enhance our knowledge of maize HI genetic gain. Our first objective is to quantify HI genetic gain in Bayer Crop Science Legacy hybrids and investigate the contribution of breeding and agronomic management. Our second objective is to develop a general-use model to describe the temporal evolution of maize HI. Methods: We studied 54 commercial hybrids (103-day and 111-day relative maturities) released from 1983 to 2020 across 13 environments, including plant density (current and historical increasing rate) and N-fertilizer (low and sufficient N rates) treatments. The HI was estimated at physiological maturity by destructively sampling plants. Then we synthesize new experimental data with literature findings (n = 16) to provide a robust HI genetic gain estimate. Results: Results showed that HI has increased over the years from 0.516 to 0.571 in 103-day hybrids and from 0.537 to 0.584 in 111-day hybrids. The genetic gains were similar across environments and management treatments within the studied range, indicating that this increase is attributed to maize breeding. The N-fertilizer treatments affected the magnitude of the HI, but plant density did not. Our results, combined with 16 literature datasets, revealed a 0.26% year−1 relative increase in HI since 1964. We estimated that the increase in HI accounts for ca. 15% of the historical maize yield increase in the US Corn Belt over the past 50 years. Conclusions: The maize HI has increased over the last 50 years, and this increase was attributed to breeding, not to management. Significance: Our findings enhance our knowledge of maize HI, will support robust estimations of carbon inputs in sustainability studies, and inform crop models to better capture historical yield increases.

Original languageEnglish
Article number108991
JournalField Crops Research
StatePublished - Sep 1 2023


  • Genetic gain
  • Maize biomass
  • Plant breeding
  • Soil carbon
  • Stover


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