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Corn technology shifts

Last year was known as the corn
year that wasn’t. In some areas, like most of Minnesota, 2010 was a banner corn

It started that way across
most of the Corn Belt, too, with bluebird planting weather occurring.
Subsequent prolific rains set corn up for problems like nitrogen losses.

Some Positives

On the plus side, though,
some pests that plagued corn have receded in some areas. Several years ago,
western bean cutworm threatened 
corn for Gail Witt, a Missouri Valley, Iowa, farmer, who farms with his
brother, Duane, his daughter, Elizabeth, and his nephews, Jeremy and Johnnie.

In the past couple years,
though, they haven’t bothered the Witt’s corn.

“I don’t know where they
went,” says Witt. “They just haven’t been a problem.” 

Last year was also a
testament to staying the course in hybrid selection. Better drydown, for
example, was also a big factor following the long, drawn-out 2009 harvest.
Planting shorter-season hybrids was a popular strategy in 2010. Last year, a
lot of people were looking for better drydown.

Still, sticking with 111- to
116-day relative maturities paid off for the Witts in 2010.

“2009 was such an extreme
year,” says Witt. “We did not make a switch to earlier corn on our own farm.
Instead, we stuck with full-season corn.”

Trait Technology Shift

In the midst of factors like
these, farmers are facing a seed industry in the midst of a trait upgrade.

“The biggest factor is a
shift in trait technology offerings,” says Jeff Hartz, Wyffels Hybrids director
of marketing. This shift started in 2010, as triple and quad stacks by
companies were joined by the debut of SmartStax. This trait package, developed
by Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, contains six above- and below-ground insect
traits, plus two herbicide-resistant traits.

“In addition to the multiple
modes of action, we get reduced refuge with the new technology,” says Hartz.
“Reducing the insect refuge from 20% to 5% offers strong on-farm
profitability.” A refuge is a portion of non-Bt corn that must accompany Bt
corn to prevent insect resistance.

SmartStax 2010 Results

SmartStax’s yield advantage
over existing trait packages was mixed in 2010. In 15,700 head-to-head
comparisons of all geographies, yields for Monsanto’s YieldGard VT Triple
hybrids edged those of SmartStax by 2.5 bushels per acre. But in 90- to 105-day
relative maturities in the northern Corn Belt, in 5,600 comparisons, SmartStax
hybrids had a 3.6-bushel-per-acre edge.

Monsanto officials say that
in the northern Corn Belt, SmartStax’s reduced 5% refuge potentially gave a
whole-farm advantage of more than 6 bushels per acre compared to VT Triple Pro
hybrids due to SmartStax’s reduced 5% refuge.

Monsanto backed off on price
of SmartStax for 2011. Its 2010 sales debut of 3 million acres for Monsanto’s
hybrids were below the firm’s expectations of 4 million acres.

“We would have liked to sell
more, but 3 million acres is still a huge launch of new technology,” says Brett
Begemann, executive vice president of global seeds and traits for Monsanto.
“There was broad distribution across the I-states (Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa)
and southern Minnesota. The number of SmartStax hybrids will increase
dramatically. We saw more insect pressure in 2010, and we are confident that
farmers will see the value of SmartStax.”

Agrisure Viptera 3111 Trait Stack

This year, another
multiple-trait package joins the fold. Syngenta’s Agrisure Viptera 3111 trait
stack contains the Agrisure stack of resistance to European corn borer (ECB)
and corn rootworm and tolerance to glyphosate or glufosinate herbicides. It
provides added insect resistance due to a new Bt protein mode of action called

This new trait enables it to
control up to 14 pests.

“Agrisure Viptera 3111 is a
solution to the multipest complex,” says Bruce Battles, Syngenta Seeds agronomy
marketing manager. “This may be corn earworm, western bean cutworm, and fall
armyworm, or early-season pests like black cutworm and dingy cutworm. We have
one trait that will control all these pests.”

Annually, this multipest
complex costs U.S. corn farmers yield losses of 250 million bushels, says David
Morgan, president of Syngenta Seeds. He says the Agrisure Viptera 3111 trait
stack helps growers recover this yield and saves time they would spend scouting
for these pests.

Unlike SmartStax, though,
use of the Agrisure Viptera 3111 trait stack still requires farmers to maintain
a 20% refuge. Reduced refuge is in the works, though. Syngenta plans to launch
a 5% lepidopteran refuge for pests like ECB (excluding rootworm) in 2012.

Optimum Acre Max 1

Refuge-in-a bag (RIB)’s
limited debut last year will be expanded this year via Pioneer HiBred’s Optimum
AcreMax 1. This RIB concept will be joined by SmartStax and Agrisure Viptera
versions in the next several years.

“This is going to be an
appealing option for many producers,” says Mike Gray, University of Illinois
Extension entomologist. Farmers can now opt not to plant  a separate refuge for corn rootworm.
For now, though, they will need to plant a separate structured refuge for ECB.

Optimum Acre Max 1 is a
blend of 90% Herculex Xtra corn with 10% Herculex 1. Herculex Xtra protects
against both above- and below-ground pests, while Herculex 1 protects against just
above-ground pests (no rootworm) and serves as the integrated rootworm refuge.
Plans are to include an RIB component for both ECB and rootworm by 2012 upon
federal approval.

Double Stacks

There are areas, though,
that don’t require multiple traits. For example, corn rootworm isn’t a problem
in some areas. If farmers plant a rootworm trait, they are paying for a trait
they don’t need.

Such regions are where a
product that debuted in 2010, Genuity VT DoublePro from Monsanto, is aimed.

“This is a a product that
will give farmers the opportunity to reduce refuge (for above-ground pests),
but without the rootworm component,” says Begemann. 

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