About 20 years ago, Clayton M. Christensen, a Harvard University economist, coined the term “disruptive innovation,” which he characterized as a new technology that’s inferior in some respects to the existing ones, but has other desirable attributes or advantages. We can think of examples of this in everyday life, including personal computers and email.

The concept of disruptive innovation is particularly applicable to farming, since few enterprises are as subject to constant change. If you’re farming the same way you were 20 years ago, you probably aren’t making nearly as much profit. Following are a few examples of some “disruptive” innovations that have occurred – and in some cases are still occurring – in crop production.

Brown midrib corn

Brown midrib (BMR) corn certainly isn’t an innovation now, since its inception was in 1924 at the University of Minnesota, but one can arguably considered it potentially disruptive. Because of lower lignin levels, BMR corn usually has lower yield compared to conventional corn hybrids, and some BMR hybrids are more susceptible to foliar diseases.

On the plus side, high-producing cows can eat more BMR silage because of its higher digestibility, and it therefore has the potential to put more milk in the tank. On most dairy farms, BMR corn silage should be stored in a separate silo so it can be fed only to those cows that will most benefit from its higher digestibility. Some farms exclusively use BMR, but these are few and far between and are usually very high-producing herds. So the disruptions – field and yield challenges and the need to segregate it both in silo storages and in rations – are balanced by the potential for significantly higher milk production.

High-forage rations

For purposes of discussion, I’ll define a high-forage ration as one where dairy cows receive more than 50 percent of their dry matter as forage. It should be no surprise that the basis for high-forage rations is high-quality forages. Farmers attempting to increase the percentage of forages in their milking cow rations soon realize that there’s limited room for “average” forages.

Alfalfa cut at the bloom stage or grasses mowed after heading may be OK when forage is a modest percentage of the ration, but as forage increasingly replaces grain nothing but the best will do. There’s still a place for lower-quality forages on the dairy farm, especially for far-off dry and even late-lactation cows, but cows making more than 100 pounds of milk per day have much more demanding forage needs.

However, more intensive harvest management – mowing alfalfa in the bud stage and grass in the boot stage – means that you’ll need labor, equipment and silos ready at least a few days earlier, and on some farms an earlier first-cut harvest can conflict with corn planting. That’s already a busy time of year, and moving such a time-consuming enterprise as first-cut forage harvest up several days or more can really be disruptive. So much so, it may be necessary to invest in bigger equipment, hire more help during spring planting, or have some of the planting and/or harvest done by a custom operator. However disruptive these changes may be, most dairy farmers find that the advantages of high-forage rations, both in income versus feed cost and in improved cow health, are well worth it.

Genetically engineered crops

I’ll use the term “genetically engineered” crops in this context instead of the more commonly used term “genetically modified.” That’s because virtually all food crops have been genetically modified; traditional plant breeding, including selection of the best-performing plants in a population, is a form of genetic modification. Genetic engineering is a type of genetic modification where one or more foreign genes are inserted into a plant using recombinant DNA techniques. Now that’s disruptive innovation!

In recent years, we’ve discovered that the combination of the extensive use of glyphosate herbicide and glyphosate-resistant crops has resulted in weeds that are resistant to this herbicide. Another problem that began in the Midwest, but has spread to the Northeast, is the development of Western corn rootworms that are resistant to the Bt rootworm traits in genetically engineered corn hybrids. This certainly has been a disruptive technology, and it’s too soon to tell how effectively agriculture – farmers and plant breeders working together – will be able to deal with the resistance problem.

However, engineered crops have great potential, not only to increase crop yields and reduce reliance on pesticides, but as a delivery mechanism for certain vitamins that are deficient in many third-world nations. In fact, some organizations, from the Australian-based Regional Institute to Columbia University, claim that the use of crops as carriers for vitamins and pharmaceutical products will be of more value, both monetarily and to society, than any other advantages of genetically engineered crops.