Tomorrow's Toolbox

July 27, 2012 06:31 PM
Tomorrow's Toolbox

Tools, tech and trends you can expect to see in 2013

Next year, farmers will have access to an unprecedented amount of seed selection, a mix of today’s tried-and-true performers and tomorrow’s top contenders. A few of these seeds will
introduce exotic new traits; most just hope to raise the bar incrementally on yield and/or quality. Here’s a sampling of what you can expect when purchasing seed for 2013.

Drought focus

DuPont Pioneer is not unique in realizing that choice is important for farmers. But its "right product, right acre" approach is certainly one that carries weight with its customers.

"We’re built around choice," says Josh St. Peters, DuPont Pioneer corn marketing manager. "We’re always introducing new products. It seems like there are always opportunities to look at new traits and technologies."

One of the newest technologies the major seed companies are investing in is drought tolerance. DuPont Pioneer has debuted its Optimum AQUAmax line of drought-tolerant corn hybrids, and Monsanto has countered with its own line of DroughtGard hybrids. Breeders are using a cadre of native genes to improve water access and grain yield in water-limited environments. Joe Keaschall, DuPont Pioneer regional corn research director, says limited water is one of several age-old challenges that is being solved byte by byte with computerized processes.

"We have fingerprinted thousands of inbreds and are using powerful computers to sort them all out," Keaschall says. "Computerization is speeding up a lot of our processes, whether we’re looking for genetic patterns of drought tolerance, strength against problems like Goss’s wilt or brittle snap, or any number of things."

In fact, several companies are now targeting Goss’s wilt, a disease that has grown more prevalent in recent years. Fungicides are largely ineffective against this bacterium, so breeding advancements might prove to be a more practical solution.

"Yield is still what pays the bills," Keaschall adds, but modern processes allow breeders to bring better uniformity, standability, harvestability and other desirable crop characteristics into the picture much earlier in the breeding process.

Keaschall says Optimum AQUAmax will prove most popular in the West, but he hopes that Midwest farmers give it at least a passing glance.

"In states such as Iowa or Illinois, Optimum AQUAmax becomes an insurance policy," he says. "Drought can happen anywhere, and when it does, you’ll want a hybrid that will still survive and yield well."

Trait lull?

Veteran corn breeder Fritz Behr of Wyffels Hybrids says the next game-changing corn or soybean trait is not due to land until after 2013. "It feels like a lull," he says. "We don’t see anything that’s going to blow away what we’re already doing."

The absence of a hot new genetic trait won’t slow down Wyffels’ breeding efforts, Behr says. Its goal remains the same: Develop hybrids that can yield 2% to 3% more than current commercial offerings. The toolbox to accomplish this is deeper than ever, he says. Several technologies that used to sound like science fiction—molecular breeding, dihaploid techniques, laser-assisted seed selection—are now commonplace and further accelerating breeding improvements.

Behr predicts that rapid refuge-in-a-bag (RIB) adoption will continue. Farmers are demanding high-performance products with RIB options. "We expect RIB sales to double for us in 2013 and again in 2014," he says.

Despite these technological advancements and new built-in refuge conveniences, the heart of breeding remains the same, Behr says. "You just know it when you see a good hybrid," he says. "It’s an ‘aha’ moment."

Soybeans ready to rock

School-children learn the "3 R’s" in class. Now Asgrow hopes its growers practice the "4 P’s" of full-season soybean management: plan, plant, protect and perform. Officials say they will bring
a consistently performing product to market with their 2013 lineup of Asgrow Rock Star soybean varieties.

"Farmers can be confident selecting these products, which feature improved agronomic traits and the best of the Asgrow breeding program," says Todd Heap, Asgrow product manager. The inaugural class comprises 11 varieties with maturities ranging from Late 0 through Early IV.

Monsanto hopes these varieties lay a strong foundation. "We’re calling the 2010s the ‘Decade of the Bean’ because Monsanto has a mix of 12 biotech and breeding traits in its soybean R&D pipeline," says Roy Fuchs, global oilseeds technology lead.

Global demand for soybeans is further driving demand for higher yields, Fuchs says. In turn, Monsanto and other companies are investing significantly in developing several categories of traits—specifically, biotechnology, genetic and agronomic traits.

There are two ways to increase yield with a trait, says Asgrow/DeKalb agronomist Lance Tarochione. The obvious way is directly, but breeders have increased their focus on traits that have an indirect impact, he says.

"Think about disease resistance," he says. "If you put a Phytophthora trait in a plant that enables it to survive, produce and prosper, that trait was yield neutral, but the resulting healthier plant was able to yield a lot more."

Breeding successes come incrementally, Tarochione adds. Small boosts in a plant’s yield capabilities can really stack up across an entire field.

"If you do the math, to get a 4 bu. yield increase with 120,000 bean plants per acre, you only need six more beans per plant," he says. "You might think six more beans on a plant is not a big deal. But 4 bu. is a pretty big deal."

Breeders are investigating all manner of defensive traits that will better equip tomorrow’s soybean varieties to combat a broad range of diseases, including Phytophthora, sudden death syndrome, white mold, charcoal rot, brown stem rot and more.

Use your imagination

If there’s one word that echoes throughout the crop breeding community, it’s enthusiasm. Keaschall says that increasingly, the biggest limitation for plant breeders is their own imaginations.

"We’re using a level of science well above and beyond anything we’ve ever had before," he says.


Bayer: New Player in Wheat

Bayer CropScience is perhaps best known among cotton and canola farmers for its FiberMax, Stoneville and InVigor seed brands. Now, the company is doing some heavy investing in wheat breeding with hopes to enter the market by 2015.

"Wheat productivity has not kept pace with the advancement in other crops like corn, but Bayer is determined to see that trend reversed," says Mathias Kremer, head of the company’s BioScience business unit.

Bayer has developed several university partnerships as a part of these efforts, most notably with South Dakota State University, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and Texas A&M University. Researchers and breeders at these institutions will focus on developing wheat lines with improved yield and other desirable features.

The company also opened a state-of-the-art wheat breeding facility in Germany earlier this year.
"Important research targets are increasing yields and promoting efficient nutrient use, for example nitrogen and phosphorus uptake," says Elmar Weissmann, head of the European wheat breeding center. "But the work involved in adapting wheat varieties to climate factors such as drought or heat is also presenting us with challenges."

Company officials note that wheat productivity is growing at a rate of less than 1% annually, while global demand for wheat has been increasing twice as fast. Wheat provides about 20% of the world population’s calorie requirements.

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