Technology overcomes corn’s most labor-intensive job
Thousands of farm kids pace down corn rows each summer, yanking tassels from stalks. This rite of passage will soon be a thing of the past thanks to technologies from DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto that don’t require manually or mechanically detasselling female plants.
DuPont Pioneer’s Seed Production Technology (SPT) process has already passed USDA regulatory hurdles, and hybrids produced from the process are now in the field.
"By eliminating the pollen flow through selection of naturally occurring genes that inhibit pollen production, we eliminate the mechanical and manual process of detasselling," says Mike Gumina, vice president of production for DuPont Pioneer. "I’ve been in seed production for 32 years. Very few occurrences in a career could be called a silver bullet—but this could be one of those times."
Gumina estimates that within five years, 40% of DuPont Pioneer’s hybrid corn seed will be produced using the new technology. Eventually, mechanical and manual detasselling will be eliminated in as much as 70% of its seed corn production. Because the process involves selection of a naturally occurring recessive gene to prevent pollination in the seed parent, the hybrid seed’s pollen production is restored by the dominant pollen gene in the pollen parent. This allows the resulting seed to pollinate naturally.
"While the SPT process uses a transgenic maintainer line at the front end, the progeny and resulting hybrid seed will not contain the SPT transgenes," Gumina explains.
Pollen preventer. Monsanto’s Roundup Hybridization System (RHS) uses a chemical trigger to inhibit pollen production in hybrid seed corn. The technology allows seed producers to stop production of viable pollen in specific, targeted plants through timed applications of glyphosate during a two- to three-week period based on growing degree days.
"The nice thing about this system is we do not need to cut the plant and pull the tassel, which allows for better plant health overall," explains Jesse Stiefel, global operations manager for Monsanto. "We can plant at optimal times and not worry about the detasselling window."
The company’s RHS technology is in its fourth phase of research and development, which includes regulatory submissions and seed bulk-up. Monsanto anticipates that RHS will be ready for commercial use for seed production as early as 2014.
"We’re anxious to see both technologies rolled out in a big way," says Kip Tom, who produces seed corn on 5,000 acres for Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer in northern Indiana and the Buenos Aires province of Argentina.
"People now have to look at each and every plant to make sure the tassel is removed. It’s time-sensitive and it takes a lot of people," Tom says. The human factor can also lead to plant and field damage and yield loss if too much plant material is removed.
Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer anticipate the new technologies could reduce their manufacturing costs to produce seed corn, but that probably will not translate into lower seed costs for commercial corn producers, particularly if the new hybrids provide greater yields, added convenience and better agronomic traits.
"At the end of the day, this more efficient system will improve the way we produce seed corn and make us a more reliable supplier to our customers," Stiefel says.
Other benefits that DuPont Pioneer sees are improved quality of seed corn, a lower environmental footprint and a more stable process overall.
"Both companies have good standard operating procedures in place now and are very reliable suppliers," Tom says. "This will only improve upon that."