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Hybrids that deter drought

Five years ago, corn seemed bulletproof. Weeds wilted against the Roundup Ready System. Ditto for insects that dared to dent corn hybrids laced with Bt traits.

Drought? It seemed a distant memory, with the great drought of 1988 destined for dusty old history books.

Over time, though, bullets started hitting corn. Weeds that resisted the Roundup Ready system surfaced. In scattered areas, the trait that enabled corn hybrids to resist corn rootworm failed.

Meanwhile, widespread drought returned with a vengeance in 2012. There are fears in the western Corn Belt that soils may not recover for 2013.

There’s good news on the drought front, though. Several companies have launched or are launching drought-tolerant corn hybrids with biotech or native traits.

“Drought is always going to be a negative impact,” says Mark Edge, DroughtGard Hybrids marketing lead for Monsanto. “What we’re doing is reducing the impact of it.”

Drought-Tolerant Hybrids For 2013

Here’s what four companies have in store for 2013.

  • Monsanto is launching its Genuity DroughtGard Hybrids in the western Corn Belt in 2013. The firm is marketing approximately 25 mainly DeKalb hybrids containing its biotech drought-tolerant trait in areas where scant water often squelches yields to between 70 and 130 bushels per acre. Hybrids with relative maturities of 95 to 115 days will include those stacked with herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant traits. The drought-tolerant transgenic trait joins sound genetics and agronomic practices to boost overall water-use efficiency, say Monsanto officials.
    In 2012, Monsanto trials with around 250 farmers from South Dakota to Texas showed DroughtGard Hybrids edged competing products by 5 bushels per acre, say company officials. Monsanto plans to commercialize DroughtGard Hybrids in the central and eastern Corn Belt later this decade.
  • DuPont Pioneer is doubling its Optimum Aquamax offerings for 2013 to 45 hybrids. These hybrids, including offerings stacked with herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant traits, have relative maturities of 89 to 115 days. DuPont Pioneer is expanding offerings of hybrids containing its native drought-tolerant trait from the western Corn Belt eastward that can occasionally be short on moisture.
    The company’s internal studies show an 8.9% yield edge for Optimum Aquamax hybrids vs. those without the trait in environments that limit corn yields to 140 bushels per acre or less. Under favorable conditions, DuPont Pioneer’s Optimum Aquamax products yielded 1.9% higher than those hybrids without the trait, says Reed Mayberry, senior corn marketing manager. That’s based on 2012’s 11,269 side-by-side comparisons.
  • Syngenta is launching nine Agrisure Artesian hybrids with relative maturities ranging between 101 and 112 days in 2013. Syngenta is aiming these hybrids containing a native drought-tolerant trait across the Corn Belt, rather than just an initial specific region.
    “They will be broadly adapted from eastern Colorado to western Ohio,” says Duane Martin, Syngenta commercial traits manager. “They are a risk-management tool for the central and eastern Corn Belt. We see these hybrids as a yield-consistency tool, instead of just a defensive strategy against drought only.”
    Agrisure Artesian hybrids will include those stacked with traits that resist corn rootworm, European corn borer, and glyphosate. Plans for 2014 are to include hybrids with stacks, including the Agrisure Viptera trait and Syngenta’s new Duracade corn rootworm trait.
  • Dow AgroSciences genetically screens corn hybrids with drought-tolerant traits. For now, though, it has opted not to brand these hybrids as drought-tolerant.
    “It is all about product placement,” says Eric Sitzman, corn product man ager for Mycogen Seeds. “Some hybrids respond better under drought.”
    Still, care has to be taken not to overpromise, he says. It isn’t realistic to consistently grow 120-bushel-per-acre corn in the western Corn Belt on just 10 inches of rain annually with any drought-tolerant technology, he says.

What To Expect

The drought-tolerant trait changes the physiology of the plant under stress, points out Monsanto’s Edge.

“It helps maintain top-end yield potential,” he says. “When a plant is under stress, the trait helps a plant use less water and form more kernels.”

The effects are visual, especially under drought. “You can see delayed leaf rolling and minimal leaf firing,” says DuPont Pioneer’s Mayberry. “Plants are greener, and there is improved kernel-tip fill.”

You’ll get the usual answer from companies when you ask about price: “Priced according to value.” It’s difficult to specify prices, since buyers also purchase the hybrid’s genetics and other traits.

Remember, too, that genetics – and not traits – drive yields. Traits are good tools, but they protect rather than enhance corn yields.

Like pests, drought-tolerant traits protect against a certain malady. Unlike insects, though, the impact can vary.

“Drought is a fickle environment,” says Edge. “You can have too much or not enough. You may not see a difference in yield due to the timing of the stress.”

Yield depends on the genetic package since these hybrids don’t always outyield conventional ones.

Jeff Gatzke, Hitchcock, South Dakota, tested six of Monsanto’s DroughtGard Hybrids on his farm in 2012.

However, northeastern South Dakota was an anomaly during a droughty 2012. Timely rains and excellent subsoil moisture produced excellent dryland yields for Gatzke. Five drought-tolerant hybrids he tested on his farm didn’t yield as well as ones without the drought-tolerant trait.

“From high to low, there was a 10% difference between all of them,” he says.

Conditions can change quickly, though, as drought may reign in 2013, says Gatzke. That’s why he plans to continue evaluating drought-tolerant hybrids. “I always like to try new technology,” he says.

Hybrids containing transgenic traits like DroughtGard Hybrids must be used domestically for now; not all foreign markets have approved them. Monsanto officials expect all international approvals for DroughtGard Hybrids to occur later this year.

Drought-tolerant corn traits help boost yields modestly in some places, particularly in the western Corn Belt, says Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois agronomist. In more eastern states like Illinois, though, he’s not so sure.

“We know we have some hybrids that tolerate drought better than others. We’ve always had them, and they do well in normal conditions, too,” he says. “On light soils where water supply is less certain, we can plant consistent hybrids that grow vigorously and encourage root development. That’s the basis of drought tolerance anyway.”

The yield payoff tends to be higher under extreme drought, say seed company officials.

“As drought becomes worse, the benefit gets larger,” says Syngenta’s Martin. Under severe and extreme drought conditions, he says hybrids with the Agrisure Artesian trait in 2012 Syngenta tests outyielded test plot averages by nearly 17%.

Editor's Note: Successful Farming Crop Technology Editor Gil Gullickson produced this story.

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