Drought Dodgers

February 7, 2011 08:42 AM

Corn plants that won’t leave you high and dry during drought are headed to the field this spring. Pioneer Hi-Bred and Syngenta Seeds will debut corn hybrids designed to stretch each drop of moisture.

Native, nontransgenic traits are the foundation for these first-generation, drought-tolerant hybrids. Each company plans a limited launch in the western Corn Belt in 2011 and a broader launch in 2012. Monsanto Company is collaborating with BASF to bring the first genetically modified drought-tolerant trait to the field in 2012.

Kraig Roozeboom, Kansas State University Extension agronomist, says such tools will play an important role in water-limited regions. Annual rainfall in his state ranges from more than 40" in the southeast to an average 16" on the western border.

"Of course, moisture problems aren’t as big a worry for irrigated farms," Roozeboom says. "However, irrigated farms with limited well capacity could reduce risks if the new-generation hybrids perform as advertised. Water is a scarce resource that is getting scarcer."

Genetic answers. Syngenta’s Agrisure Artesian hybrids revolve around a unique set of 12 genes identified through the company’s proprietary molecular Gene Blueprinting process. Wayne Fithian, head of technical services for Syngenta Seeds, says the unique genes help the new hybrids preserve up to 15% yield potential that would otherwise be lost when grown in moderate to severe drought conditions.

"We have concentrated our efforts on a multi-gene approach and on genes that are active throughout the growing season and that preserve yield potential by more than one method," Fithian says. "Multiple approaches, or modes of action, for managing drought allow Agrisure Artesian hybrids to better withstand moisture stress by maintaining essential, life-sustaining physiological processes."

Fithian adds that traditional breeding methods have been effective in providing a steady, incremental increase in yield potential under drought. However, gains have been limited by the number of different drought genes available to corn breeders. "We now know that there are many key drought genes that are not common in the elite germplasm pools used to develop corn hybrids. Our process allows us to go beyond common drought genes to add novel, unique genes," he says.

Natural variations. Pioneer began advancing Optimum AQUAmax hybrids in 2008. The company says research trials and on-farm tests demonstrate a 5% yield advantage compared with leading commercial hybrids tested under dryland conditions.

Initially, eight hybrids will be offered in five hybrid platforms in 102- to 114-day maturity ranges. "These are hybrids that show great yield stability under severe stress. They have the flexibility built in so they can respond to rainfall when it occurs, but offer insurance if it doesn’t," says Jeff Schussler, Pioneer senior research manager.

He says deeper roots, better silking characteristics at flowering, better leaf-rolling mechanisms and water conservation are some characteristics drought researchers study.

Think of it as a marathon. Many variables impact the outcome of a long-distance race, but those who cross the line first typically have an inherent genetic ability to endure. "Take two hybrids of similar maturity grown under the same stresses and you find differences in genetic variation for the ability to make more grain with less water," Schussler says. "These first-generation drought hybrids exploit the natural variation to help plants fight off drought."

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