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Drought tolerance, improved nitrogen utilization barrelling through Monsanto pipeline

Agriculture.com Staff 01/07/2009 @ 2:23pm

By the time this year's newborns are just reaching the age where they can legally drink alcohol, farmers should be producing twice the corn and soybeans they're capable of growing today.

That, along with a one-third reduction in required water and resources to raise a crop, is the simple, yet lofty, goal of Monsanto Company. Officials with Monsanto on Wednesday touched on some of the developments in the company's research and development pipeline that will move those goals closer to farmers' reach in the next few years.

"Our pipeline is the strongest I've seen it in my nearly 25 years in this business," says Steve Padgette, Monsanto Biotechnology lead.

Working its way up a step in Monsanto's R&D pipeline is a drought tolerant corn product that Padgette says showed at 6% to 10% yield improvement in drought-prone areas over conventional varieties.

Now that the trait is working its way through the pipeline, Padgette says the next step will be finding germplasms that can be inserted into market-ready varieties.

Introduced in 2007, the first eight-way corn gene platform, or "stack" is within a year or so of its entry into the marketplace. In addition to its pest and weed control qualities, SmartStax is a unique offering, Padgette says, because of its refuge requirements.

"We recently received key approval by EPA of our refuge reduction to 5% from 20%," he says. "SmartStax will be coming to market in 2010, and it will be the platform for everything else in our corn pipeline."

The lower refuge requirement is unique for a trait such as this, adds Monsanto corn technology lead Dusty Post.

"This is the first time there has been a regulatory submission of a trait of this type," Post says of the proposed refuge requirement for SmartStax.

In today's era of high input costs, fertilizer has become a major factor in planting decisions. But, with a new nitrogen utilization product working its way through the early phases of Monsanto's R&D pipeline, fertilizer concerns may become a smaller piece of the input costs pie.

"The nitrogen utilization trait continues to improve yields. We're already at or near 6% to 10% yield gains," Padgette says.

These yield gains were achieved in field trials with a 60-pound nitrogen application rate, versus the typical 200-pound rate in conventional systems. But, once the product reaches the market -- which Post says will happen in the middle to latter half of the next decade -- it won't call for such a dramatic cut of N rates.

"The actual level of N that would be used is still being determined. We would expect that we will not have a higher yield impact at higher levels. This is still in the early discovery phase," Padgette says. "We wouldn't be looking to recommend the appliaction of only one third the normal N rate. It will be more modest decreases, but still will bring value to the farmer."

By the time this year's newborns are just reaching the age where they can legally drink alcohol, farmers should be producing twice the corn and soybeans they're capable of growing today.

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