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How to keep traits straight

Seed corn buying used to mimic a leisurely Sunday afternoon drive through the countryside. Today, though, deciphering a complex menu of trait-laced hybrids resembles zipping through a busy freeway at rush hour.

“Companies have come out with lots of new ones in the last three years,” says Clarke Kelso, a Macomb, Illinois, farmer, who farms with his brother, Kurt. “It's confusing because there are so many of them.”

The plethora of insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant traits magnifies the difficulty of picking the best seed mix for your farm. There are more coming, too.

“As fast as things have moved in the industry, they will move a lot faster in the next five to 10 years with multiple traits in more hybrids and more adapted germplasm,” says Eric Anderson, a Syngenta agronomic service representative.

New insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant traits offer new choices for protecting your hybrids. On the flip side, more trait choices can create more confusion.

This is compounded by this summer's finding of rootworm resistance to a form of Bt corn. Aaron Gassmann, an Iowa State University entomologist, and three other entomologists published a July 2011 paper confirming field-evolved resistance by western corn rootworm to the Cry3Bb1 protein. This is the Bt trait found in Monsanto's single-gene YieldGard corn. That's led many of you to ponder if you can expect your trait package to protect your corn from corn rootworm in 2012.

Genetics first

So what should you do? Remember that before you even think about traits, concentrate on hybrids first.

“You want to find a product that fits your soil type and performs in your environment. And then protect it with the best traits you can find,” says Sonny Beck, president of Beck's Hybrids. “Traits are simply meant to protect yield.”

That's not so easy. “Sometimes, you have to go back to the basics and know what you're dealing with,” says Kelso. “We tend to plant the old reliable ones that we know a lot about.”

One downfall with this is hybrids and varieties churn out of company line-ups faster than a salmon swimming through a rapid stream. So how do you deal with it?

“We don't,” says Kelso. “We rely on seed people to come up with hybrids and varieties with different choices.”

“You need a partner,” adds Bill Belzer, senior marketing manager of Pioneer Hi-Bred's North America corn division. “We work hard to train our local sales representatives to help producers understand what these hybrid and trait combinations mean.”

Then come traits

After that, it's time to look at traits. The 11 recommendations on these pages will help you match hybrids with traits for 2012 and beyond.

Making this match can be difficult. In difficulty, though, lies opportunity. Getting these choices right can give you an advantage over competitors.

“Figure out how to do the hard stuff, because not everyone will do it,” points out Mike Boehlje, a Purdue University agricultural economist.

Special Report: State of the Traits

Number 1

Get Your Rootworm Guard Up

Don't assume any insect trait guarantees bulletproof pest protection.

Last summer, Aaron Gassmann, an Iowa State University entomologist, and three other entomologists published a paper documenting corn rootworm resistance to Cry3Bb1 corn. This is the Bt rootworm trait found in Monsanto's YieldGard VT Triple and Genuity VT Triple Pro corn products. Resistance was found in corn-on-corn fields dating back to 2003 where the Bt trait had been used for three consecutive years.

Mike Gray, University of Illinois Extension entomologist, surveyed fields last summer in northwest Illinois that had been in continuous corn for many years where Bt hybrids that express the Cry 3Bb1 protein had been used. Lodged plants frequently resulted, and western corn rootworm adults were numerous. Two to three nodes were completely destroyed.

“There have been pockets where we've seen this concentration of insects,” says Bob Jackson, product development manager for Wyffels Hybrids.

However, he adds, you have to keep it in perspective.

“The technology is still the best weapon against the pest,” he says.

“We take claims of resistance seriously,” says Luke Samuel, Monsanto product development manager. “We are working closely with Dr. Gassmann about what needs to be done and how this affects growers.”

Number 2

What to do?

So far, no resistance has been found on Cry34/35Ab1 proteins (Herculex technology offered by Pioneer and Dow and the modified Cry3A Bt protein Syngenta uses in its Agrisure trait packages. Still, don't assume your trait is bulletproof just because you use these products.

“If you encountered unsatisfactory root protection last season with your Bt hybrid, consider the following alteratives for 2012,” says Mike Gray, University of Illinois Extension entomologist.

● Rotate to a nonhost crop like soybeans.

● Apply a soil-applied insecticide.

● Plant a hybrid with a different Cry protein than one that may have performed poorly in 2011.

● Plant a pyramided hybrid with multiple Cry proteins targeted against corn rootworm.

Number 3

Rib fest

When companies first sold hybrids resistant to European corn borer and/or corn rootworm, farmers agreed to plant a 20% refuge. It's helped deter widespread resistance, but planting a refuge has always been difficult to manage.

“Who wants to take two types of bags (noninsect-traited and insect-traited) corn to every field?” asks Ryan McAllister, Beck's Hybrids team sales agronomist.

Refuge headaches could be changing, though, due to refuge-in-a-bag (RIB) products.

In 2010, Pioneer Hi-Bred launched its Optimum AcreMax 1 product that blended 90% Herculex Xtra corn with 10% Herculex 1. Herculex Xtra protects against both above-ground and below-ground pests, while Herculex 1 protects against just above-ground pests (no rootworm) and serves as the integrated rootworm refuge.

Choices are broadening in 2012. Pioneer plans to launch two single-bag refuge products: Optimum AcreMax and Optimum AcreMax Xtra. Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences will fully commercialize SmartStax RIB products with 5% refuges. Syngenta also has RIB products on tap, pending regulatory approval.

Number 4

RIB should rock

Farmers likely will quickly adopt refuge-in-a-bag (RIB) products due to convenience and time savings.

“Every industry has proven that a customer will pay for convenience,” says Ryan McAllister Beck's Hybrids team sales agronomist.

Another perk is automatic compliance. “The government has been concerned about the ability of farmers to comply with separate refuges,” says Eric Anderson, a Syngenta agronomic service representative.

The final perk is yield. Dow studies show a 5% refuge will return approximately $13 per acre more under minimal insect pressure compared to a 20% refuge, says Casey Onstot, traits marketing manager for Dow AgroSciences.

For RIB to work, though, evenly blending refuge and nonrefuge seed will be key. “Seed size will have to be similar,” says Anderson.

Number 5

Pyramid power

One way to deter insect resistance to insect-resistant traits is by pyramiding two modes of action in a hybrid targeted at the same type of insect.

“The more modes of action, the better off you are from insect resistance developing,” says Charlie Foresman, Monsanto corn systems technology lead.

Pyramid products on the market include:

● Dow AgroSciences Refuge Advanced powered by SmartStax

● Monsanto's Genuity SmartStax

● Monsanto's Genuity VT Double Pro and VT Triple Pro

● Syngenta's Agrisure Viptera 3111 and 3220 trait stacks, and the Agrisure 3122 trait stack.

Having two modes of action enables one mode of action to work if an insect thwarts the other.

Corn rootworm often garners the most insect control attention. Still, don't forget about dual modes of action for European corn borer (ECB), too. There are pockets in areas of Illinois and Iowa where ECB populations have resurged.

Number 6

What's Coming Up

Here's what's up for 2012 insect-resistant trait and refuge-in-a-bag (RIB)products.

Pioneer Hi-Bred plans to launch Optimum AcreMax Xtra. It will contain two European corn borer (ECB) modes of action (MOA) and one corn rootworm MOA in a 90% insect-traited/10% noninsect-traited RIB format. Pioneer also will launch Optimum AcreMax targeted at above-ground pests in a 95% insect-traited/5% noninsect-traited mix.

Dow AgroSciences will have a full commercial launch of its Refuge Advanced powered by SmartStax pyramided product. It contains multiple MOA for both above-ground (including ECB) and below-ground (including corn rootworm) insects. Its six insect-resistant traits are in a 95% traited/5% nontraited RIB mix.

Monsanto will have a full commercial launch of its Genuity SmartStax RIB Complete pyramided product. It contains multiple MOA for both above-ground (including ECB) and below-ground (including corn rootworm) insects. Its six insect-resistant genes will be in a 95% traited/5% noninsect traited RIB mix.

Syngenta plans to launch Agrisure E-Z Refuge 3122 and Agrisure Viptera 3220 E-Z Refuge trait stacks, pending regulatory approval.

The 3220 product offers dual MOA on above-ground lepidopteron pests (ECB). It also contains the Vip3A MOA that's the first non-Cry insect-control protein and a new MOA in corn. It will feature a 95%/5% RIB mix.

The 3122 stack has dual MOA for both ECB and corn rootworm in a 95%/5% RIB mix.

Number 7

Truth or consequences?

One of the perks about refuge-in-a bag products is the refuge is, well, already in the bag.

Farmers will still plant separate refuges for various reasons. Bear in mind that insect-resistant trait providers will continue to check up on farmers via annual on-farm assessments for refuge compliance.

“The broad majority are refuge-compliant,” says Bill Belzer, Pioneer Hi-Bred senior marketing manager, North America corn.

Consequences can be severe, though, for farmers who are not compliant. Ultimately, it can cost them the opportunity to use insect-resistant Bt products.

“If we find an individual is out of compliance the first year, we set up an on-farm visit to help get him or her back into compliance,” says Belzer. If the grower is found to be out of compliance for two out of five years, he or she loses access to Bt technology.”

This has happened, says Belzer. Most of the time, though, farmers get in compliance by planting a proper refuge after the first year of the on-farm assessment.

“In 2012 and 2013, there will be lots of new corn products,” says Belzer. “There will be more compliance checks than in the past. Folks need to understand those options. Growers have to find the right products that best fit their needs, and they need to make sure they understand the refuge requirements related to those products.” 

Number 8

Mix 'em up

The increasing spectre of glyphosate-resistant weeds is spelling the end of the days of total postemergence weed control.

“It's just like going down the highway and seeing cracks in the Interstate,” says Sonny Beck, president of Beck's Hybrids. “We are seeing cracks in the Roundup Ready Interstate.”

“The key message is that growers who don't have resistance issues now need to do things to reduce the selection pressure,” says Rick Cole, Monsanto weed product manager. “In our management system, we ask growers to use residual herbicides and then follow up with postemergence.”

At a minimum, it will thin out the weed population as a setup for a later nonselective postemergence herbicide application. Lacing glyphosate with another mode of action can also keep weeds off balance and forestall glyphosate resistance.

Number 9

Help is on the way

New herbicide-tolerant trait systems are on the way. Dow AgroSciences plans to have its Enlist Weed Control System with tolerance to 2,4-D and glyphosate in corn and soybeans, and fop herbicides in corn. It's slated for corn for 2013 and for soybeans in 2015, pending regulatory approval.

Monsanto and BASF are working on soybeans tolerant to dicamba that are slated to hit the market later this decade. Bayer CropSciences and Syngenta also are co-developing a soybean trait tolerant to HPPD inhibitors for later this decade.

Number 10

The right place

If a gene isn't inserted in the right area of the chromosome, it can negatively affect hybrid performance. Ditto for a faulty selection process of matching a hybrid and trait. Insertion becomes more difficult with multiple-trait stacks. This can result in hybrid yield differences, even those that share the same trait package.

“All SmartStax hybrids contain the same traits, but selection and testing between companies can differ,” says Ben Kahler, U.S. seeds affiliates commercial leader for Dow AgroSciences.

Two SmartStax hybrids took different directions for Wyffels Hybrids.

“In initial testing, both looked great,” says Bob Jackson, product development manager for Wyffels Hybrids. “But after more extensive research, they ended up in very different places. One hybrid is a top seller; the other never reached the farmgate. The combination of trait, genetic, and environmental conditions just didn't work. The key is to ensure you do enough testing and confirm trait insertion.”

A Genuity SmartStax hybrid, DKC61-21, also didn't meet expectations in 2010. “Hot evenings and lack of rainfall did not favor the hybrid's genetic background,” says Charlie Foresman, Monsanto corn systems technology lead. “It had nothing to do with the (trait) package.” Performance improved in more northern climates with 95- to 105-day relative maturities with Genuity SmartStax products, he adds.

Still, SmartStax hybrids can be strong performers.

“In fact, our SmartStax products have the greatest demand of all our hybrids,” says Kahler.

Number 11

Why no new modes of action?

The next time you hear a chemical company tout a new corn or soybean herbicide, remember that its mode of action isn't new.

The modes of action easiest to develop already hit the market between 1950 and 1985, says Tom Adams, Monsanto global chemistry technology lead.

“To get a herbicide, you have to find a target that is unique to the crop,” says Adams. “The types of target have gotten quite narrow.”

The success of the Roundup Ready system also has played a role. For a time, it discouraged other companies from developing new herbicide modes of action, says Rick Cole, Monsanto weed product manager.

“It takes 10 years and $200 million to bring a new product to market,” he says. This is compounded by increasing difficulty in federal regulators approving pesticides, Cole adds.

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