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Stacks of Traits

December 8, 2010

New and improved may be fine for breakfast cereal, but Mike Bland tries to look beyond the bells and whistles when buying seed corn. “Yield is still my main priority,” says the Bethany, Ill., farmer.

“The number of trait combinations and brands on the market today can make hybrid selection confusing,” Bland says. “I study a lot of independent yield trials to sort through it. I like the added protection that traits offer, but I want them in addition to, not at the expense of, yield and profit.”

The trend toward stacking biotech traits to package herbicide tolerance and insect protection continues in the product pipelines of biotech providers.

In 2010, the corn market became almost a pure genetically modified (GM) market. USDA’s Economic Research Service reports that this past year, 86% of corn acreage was planted to GM varieties and half of that was devoted to “stacked varieties.”

The list of shopping options grows in 2011 with an all-new multi-pest insect trait, a new blended refuge concept and the first hybrids bred to weather water stress hitting the market.

Choice is not the issue. Choosing is, and Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie says the 2010 growing season served up some reminders that corn traits are not foolproof, nor are traits guarantees of yield.

“In the past, the traits that helped protect roots were especially helpful when we got into drought summer situations,” Ferrie says. “This past year, the problem was not so much drought as sustained, elevated nighttime temperatures. As a result, the plant spent a lot of energy respiring, rather than devoting that energy to the ear.”

Producers eagerly adopted European corn borer (ECB)–resistant transgenic hybrids when they debuted in 1996. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)–enhanced crops also reduced pesticide use.

Research conducted by several Midwestern universities shows that suppression of ECB has saved $3.2 billion for corn growers in Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin during the past 14 years.

Comparable estimates for Iowa and Nebraska total $3.6 billion. In Illinois, ECB densities have reached historic lows and have many questioning if it should still be considered a pest.

Ferrie maintains that GM traits are as crucial today as ever, especially as secondary pests come into play. “Growers fighting corn earworm and western bean cutworm benefit from new technology because those pests are hard to monitor and spray for,” he says.

Iowa State University agronomist Roger Elmore reminds growers that no two years are alike and the chance of choosing a high-yielding hybrid significantly increases if it has performed well across multiple sites and/or years.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - December 2010
RELATED TOPICS: Corn Navigator, Production

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