Drought-Tolerant Hybrids Evolve

Drought-Tolerant Hybrids Evolve

New options maintain yield and boost farmer confidence during water stress 

Pressure is mounting for agriculture to produce more with less. Interest in water optimization technology is growing in tandem, particularly with drought-tolerant hybrid options. Drought tolerance initially focused on the parched West, but the technology is a fit for corn growers across the U.S. Whether a farmer in central Illinois with 230 bu. corn or a grower in eastern Colorado with 65 bu. corn, a range of options exist to accommodate a variety of soil types.

Drought tolerance once meant planting a hybrid that might not yield well in good conditions, but wouldn’t completely fall apart under stress. However, today’s generation of drought-tolerant hybrids maintain yield during fair weather and offer a genuinely better crop under water stress. 

Artesian: In 2012, during a historic drought, Agrisure Artesian hybrids made a full commercial launch on 40,000 acres. Artesian hybrids were planted on 1 million acres in 2014 and close to 1.5 million acres in 2015. “We’ve had more than 7,500 field trials over five years, and on average, Artesian hybrids yield 12% better in water-limited situations than hybrids without water traits. In extreme drought, where yields might come in closer to 50 bu. per acre, Artesian hybrids have increased yields by 38%,” says Duane Martin, Syngenta commercial traits lead. 

Artesian hybrids employ native trait technology with a scientific process that identifies specific genes with unique modes of action to handle water stress. Each hybrid has multiple modes of action—naturally occurring genes that act at different times during the growing season. 

Unlike old workhorse hybrids that didn’t yield well when conditions were good, Artesian hybrids boast excellent yields regardless of the weather situation, Martin says. “We don’t release an Artesian hybrid unless it yields in the top range of our entire portfolio,” he says. “We demand maximum yields during good rains and increased yields during drought.”

AQUAmax. In 2014, it’s fifth year of commercial use, DuPont Pioneer brand Optimum AQUAmax hybrids were planted on more than 9 million acres. More than 70 Optimum AQUAmax products are available in 2015.

Designed to withstand drought conditions, AQUAmax hybrids aim for yield in addition to a set of agronomic characteristics: aggressive silking, strong stay-green and good kernel set. “We make sure AQUAmax doesn’t give up yield in favorable conditions to other hybrids. Favorable water and reduced stress give AQUAmax yields the same as any other DuPont Pioneer hybrid,” says Ryan French, DuPont Pioneer senior corn marketing manager.

Optimum AQUAmax technology is built through advanced data breeding and combined with defensive transgenic traits for herbicide and insect resistance. “We’ve been breeding for drought tolerance for 50 years. After 53,000 competitive comparisons, we see a yield advantage during fair and unfavorable weather years,” he says.

DroughtGard: Taking a systems approach, DroughtGard uses a combination of genetics and a trait. Introduced in 2012, DroughtGard rapidly expanded to 2,000 farmers in 2013 and covered 50 0,000 acres in 2014. 

“We selected the best drought-tolerance genetics in the marketplace for our hybrids and then added a biotech trait. DroughtGard is unique as a truly systems approach combining crucial aspects into one product: genetics, biotech and agronomics,” says Tom Eickhoff, agronomic systems lead at Monsanto.

The portfolio of products farmers can choose containing DroughtGard is evolving, but the technology is available across the U.S. DroughtGard offers significant yield advantages in tough conditions or optimal growing weather, Eickhoff says. “During the drought of 2012, DroughtGard performed at a 5 bu. advantage over competitive drought products under extreme conditions. Fast forward to record yields in 2014, and DroughtGard showed similar performance under great growing conditions,” he adds.

Drought-tolerant technology doesn’t offer a magic bullet—hybrid corn won’t magically spring up on desert ground. However, new hybrids are boosting farmer confidence in difficult weather years and providing rotation options. Whether in the West or other parts of the U.S., drought-tolerant technology is rapidly growing as farmers take note of excellent hybrid performance.

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