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Effects of Drought on Corn Plants

Categories: GROWING, CORN
Drought's biggest impact on corn yield loss potential depends on the crop stage at the time of drought and how long the drought persists. Peak water use occurs just prior to pollination and the weeks following, making it the most sensitive time for drought to occur. Previous work shows that drought stress during pollination can cause up to 50% yield loss, whereas just prior to or just after this crop stage period drought yield loss ranges from 20-25%.1

Drought occurring during early vegetative stages will have minimal impact on yield since water demand is low at this time, as long as water becomes available before corn hits the rapid growth stages. 

Early-season drought impact:
  • Reduction of secondary root development
  • Reduced internode length and leaf size (smaller plant)
  • Fewer potential kernels formed per row in ear development
Pollination drought impact:
  • Ear shoot and silk cell expansion delayed behind tassel emergence and pollen shed
  • ​​​​​​​9–11-day silk delay can lead to basal and tip kernels not pollinating
Late-season drought impact:
  • Compromised root and stalk health due to stress causing reallocation of nutrients from lower in the plant to developing ear
  • Increased abortion of kernels (tip back)
  • Reduction of kernel size and weight
How Corn Responds to Drought
  • Drought will induce rolling of plant leaves, reducing transpiration, and conserving plant moisture as a defense mechanism. 
  • Leaf rolling during the heat of the day for a few hours will likely not cause yield loss, but if rolling persists 12+ hours a day, some grain yield loss is likely.
  • Hybrids more prone to leaf rolling could be a potential positive trait since it is considered a defensive mechanism.
  • Reduced secondary root development from early drought may reduce the ability of the plant to mine the soil for moisture and nutrients that are dependent on diffusion and root interception.
    • Nitrogen and potassium deficiencies are commonly observed simultaneously with drought.
    • Signs of deficiency may be present although adequate nutrients are available in soil.
  • Photosynthesis reduction limits the ability of the plant to produce sugars and starches for developing grain.
For more information on how drought affects corn crops, contact your local Golden Harvest Seed Advisor.

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1. Denmead, O. T., and R. H. Shaw. 1960. The Effects of Soil Moisture Stress at Different Stages of Growth on Development and Yield of Corn. Agron. J. 52:272-274.

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