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Researchers identify drought-hardy soybean line

USDA scientist expresses appreciation for Soybean Checkoff's consistent funding

The United Soybean Board and soybean checkoff are pleased to congratulate Tommy Carter, PhD., and his team of researchers as they prepare to release a line of drought-tolerant soybeans. In addition, the soybean checkoff is proud to have played such a major role in helping fund the project in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

"In 1980, when I started this type of research, we all knew drought-tolerance was important to farmers. But from the research side, we didn't know anything about drought-tolerance or if we could do anything about it genetically," Carter said. "Because of climate change, there's been more awareness recently in the scientific community that drought research is a priority. The United Soybean Board [through soybean checkoff research programs] has been the one who was there the whole time, starting in 1998."

Carter, a plant geneticist with USDA-ARS located at North Carolina State University, began his quest for drought-tolerant soybeans some 25 years ago. Over the past 11 years, the soybean checkoff has expanded this work, providing Carter and his team a total of over $7 million. Over that time, the project has utilized an average of just under $650,000 per year in checkoff funding, which is used strictly as funding for research. Checkoff funds do not compensate researchers.

"In the 1990s, USB asked farmers what was important and they said drought tolerance, so the soybean checkoff began the funding," Carter said. "It's been hard to get much support from other sources because studying drought-tolerance in soybeans is so risky. But USB stuck with it through thick and thin because it's so important."

Drought awareness is just as important for farmers now as it was then, says Rick Stern, USB Production Program Chair and a soybean farmer from Cream Ridge, N.J.

"There is somebody on our committee every year who is hit by drought," Stern said. "Drought doesn't care about whom it picks on; it hits somebody new every year."

Carter combed the thousands of exotic soybean lines that are housed at the USDA Soybean Germplasm Collection in Urbana, Ill. Finally, he identified a rare drought-tolerant trait, thereby narrowing down the field to five that could pass the drought-resistance test consistently.

"One day, we went out to the field, which contained plots of all these different types of soybeans, after it hadn't rained in about two weeks and five of the plots hadn't wilted," Carter said. "So over the next five years, we investigated what made those specific types not wilt. We're looking for those rare exceptions in soybean traits that are slow-wilting."

Carter then faced the problem of getting them to yield acceptably. After one final round of trials, Carter says he'll release the winner this year. Carter says that under drought conditions, where conventional soybeans may yield only about 30 bushels per acre, his line will yield four to eight bushels per acre better, depending on the region. At the same time, this line produces well under wet conditions.

"Tommy Carter has had great success with this project," Stern said. "He's constantly hitting the goals that he tells us he's going to meet every year."

According to Carter, drought is the top environmental limitation to soybean yield. His team, he says, is trying to become the first to demonstrate progress in soybean performance under drought conditions.

Carter's team of researchers consists of eight scientists from six state universities. Tom Rufty and Tom Sinclair both represent North Carolina State; Larry Purcell and Pengyin Chen are from the University of Arkansas. Then there is Felix Fritschi, University of Missouri; Jim Specht, University of Nebraska; Jim Orf, University of Minnesota; and Roger Boerma, University of Georgia. Carter also enlisted the help of collaborators Randy Nelson, who is the curator of the USDA Soybean Germplasm Collection, and USDA geneticists Perry Cregan and David Hyten.

USB is made up of 68 farmer-directors who oversee the investments of the soybean checkoff on behalf of all U.S. soybean farmers. Checkoff funds are invested in the areas of animal utilization, human utilization, industrial utilization, industry relations, market access and supply. As stipulated in the Soybean Promotion, Research and Consumer Information Act, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service has oversight responsibilities for USB and the soybean checkoff.

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