Down with Drought

July 29, 2011 09:52 AM

Seed technology protects yield in limited-water areas

Acombination of drought and heat damages or destroys up to one-third of the U.S. corn crop every year. Drought cost farmers $14 billion worldwide in 2009.

A number of companies are working to develop and introduce corn hybrids that offer farmers strong yield potential in drought-prone regions.

Native traits. Hybrids containing the new Agrisure Artesian technology from Syngenta demonstrate the ability to deliver up to 15% yield preservation under drought stress. The technology revolves around a unique set of 12 genes that are identified through the company’s proprietary molecular Gene Blueprinting process.

The process entails detailed work by researchers to identify multiple genes that can potentially preserve yield when water is limited, explains Robert Bensen, trait genetics lead at Syngenta Biotechnology.

"Marker-assisted gene technology enables us to evaluate which gene versions and combinations perform best and complement each other," Bensen explains.

Wayne Fithian, head of technical information services at Syngenta Seeds, adds that the technology offers farmers applications that are broader than straightforward drought stress.

"We’re looking not just at obvious situations but also where farmers have to worry about drought stress some years but not in all years, or for use in areas where farmers have fields with sandy spots," Fithian says.

The western Corn Belt and Texas Panhandle, along with the southern states, are key market areas for the technology.

drought stress map
Farmers in the most drought-prone areas have new hybrids coming that are targeted to make the most out of every drop.

Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont business, introduced its Optimum AQUAmax hybrids in five hybrid platforms in limited quantities this past spring.

Optimum AQUAmax hybrids were tested in 223 water-limited efficiency trials concentrated in Nebraska, California, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas, says Jeff Schussler, Pioneer senior research manager of maize stress product development. He says these hybrids partition water more efficiently to provide a better economic return to the grower. The hybrids were developed with Pioneer’s proprietary Accelerated Yield Technology system.

"During the last decade, new tools, including molecular breeding techniques, have allowed us to rapidly scan and identify the genes responsible for increasing yields and other beneficial traits," Schussler says.

He adds that Pioneer research trials and on-farm tests demonstrate a 5% yield advantage with its Optimum AQUAmax hybrids, compared to leading commercial hybrids tested under dryland conditions. The products introduced this year were developed under the auspices of the company’s Drought I program and were 102-day to 114-day relative maturity hybrids.

Biotech traits. Monsanto plans to introduce the first biotech drought corn hybrids to farmers in 2013, with on-farm trials to take place next year. The trait is influenced by a number of genes and, as a result, has been a challenge for the company to develop.

Monsanto worked with BASF to develop the new corn hybrids. The two companies have worked jointly on biotech research for several years now. Two years ago, they announced the development of their first drought-tolerant corn strain.

The companies report that the new biotech seed solution works best when water is limited. In situations where water is adequate, the seed will perform similar to existing hybrids.

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