Drought-tolerant corn varieties on the way
Seed for two new drought-tolerant corn varieties will be in limited release this spring. They're targeted for farmers on the western edge of the U.S. Corn Belt.
DuPont (Pioneer Hi-Bred) and Syngenta developed the new varieties through traditional breeding techniques--with a little advanced technology thrown in to speed the process of picking which parent plants to try.
The duo's entry into the world market could start decades of fierce competition for rain-challenged growers' business. Biotech varieties in the pipeline for future release may have an even bigger impact than today's hybrids, said Kraig Roozeboom, agronomist with Kansas State University Research and Extension.
"Either way, drought-tolerant corn could expand seed companies' markets," he said. "Continued expansion of corn acreage at the expense of other crops, such as wheat and sorghum, will mean greater corn seed sales--which is the most profitable sector of the seed market."
Roozeboom added that technology isn't the only reason new-generation corns are arriving so fast, compared to the new offerings for other standard crops. The seed industry for some time has been making larger investments in improving corn yields, largely because corn has been generating more dollars to invest. Herbicide- and insect-resistant corn varieties, for example, were earlier money-makers.
Market factors have been pulling agriculture toward increased corn production, Roozeboom explained. If nothing else, corn remains the primary base for U.S. ethanol manufacturing. World consumption of animal protein has been on the rise, too, increasing demand for feedgrains.
The agronomist said that so far, the best ways to address those market forces are to:
--Get more acres into corn production, including land that has been considered marginal, due to limited precipitation.
--Reduce the risk of corn crop losses while also increasing average yields in water-limited production areas, such as central and western Kansas.
"Untimely rains or dry conditions can have a big impact in our state--sometimes causing substantial yield reductions or complete crop failures," Roozeboom said. "Corn is more sensitive to the timing of rainfall than Kansas' other major row crops."
Annual rainfall in the state ranges from more than 40 inches in the southeast to an average 16 inches on the western border, he said.
Without timely rains, however, even southeast Kansas can have moisture problems, because during mid-summer, the shallow topsoils there can dry out in a couple of weeks. The area has a dense clay subsoil that limits corn roots to a narrow band of topsoil. Other subsoils may have moisture, but crop roots can't effectively reach them.
In contrast, much of western Kansas has deep silt loam soils with high water-holding capacity. So, despite the area's sparse rainfall, successfully growing dryland corn is possible, so long as enough stored soil moisture is available to complement limited rainfall during the growing season.
Roozeboom said that as global temperatures continue to rise, ongoing improvements in cropping systems may also be necessary to maintain and expand corn acreage and production. High-residue, no-till production systems have already been essential for the success of dryland corn in more arid environments. Cropping systems that conserve both water and soil will become ever more important for sustaining long-term production.
"Of course, moisture problems aren't as big a worry for irrigated farms," Roozeboom said. "However, irrigated farms with limited well capacity could also reduce their risks if the new-generation hybrids perform as advertised. Water is a scarce resource that is getting scarcer."
Syngenta, the world's No. 3 supplier of corn seed, announced its initial drought-tolerant Agrisure Artesian hybrids last July. Syngenta Biotechnology scientists developed the Agrisure Artesian platforms in conjunction with the company's Midwest and California breeders, who conducted the field testing. The Switzerland-based company will sell its new seeds for 2011 under the Garst, Golden Harvest and NK brands.
DuPont announced its five hybrid platforms in early 2011. It tested them from 2008 to 2010 in 223 water-limited efficiency trials concentrated in California, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The company's agribusiness arm, Pioneer Hi-Bred, will sell the drought-forgiving seeds this year under the Optimum AQUAmax brand.
Both companies and Monsanto, the world's top seed seller, are now developing genetically engineered corns. Their aim is more predictable drought resistance, plus greater yield potential, Roozeboom said.
In developing its drought-tolerant seed, Monsanto has been collaborating with Germany's BASF, the world's leading chemical company, in a $1.5 billion partnership. Monsanto's first drought-resistant biotech corn is now going through the federal regulatory approval process required for gene-modified products in the United States.
DuPoint announced recently that its biotech challenger won't be ready for the market until later in the decade. A Syngenta spokesperson has said its competitor will require "years."
Roozeboom pointed out, however, that the seed companies will still have room for further improvements.
"Drought itself is a complex subject. And corn's ability to handle dry conditions involves a number of genes," he said. "Beyond that, drought-tolerance alone simply addresses the problem of having to produce in a water-limited environment. Kansans know that heat can be just as damaging. Both water availability and heat stress also can depend on or interrelate with soil type, pests, nutrient levels and each farmer's management practices."