Traits and genetic improvements target increased efficiency

MFA continues to fine-tune the seed lineup sold through its 150 retail locations, according to Steve Fleming, director of seed for MFA Incorporated. He’s excited about the quality of seed products that continue to arrive on the market.

“The variety of seed genetics and trait choices have mushroomed, and we’re seeing steady yield increases—partly due to new genetic and trait technology, and partly due to inroads in precision agriculture,” Fleming said.

MFA sells a full range of varieties under its MorCorn and MorSoy brands, and also offers seed produced by Monsanto, Dow and Syngenta. With all the options available, how do farmers decide which seed is best for their fields?

“Some rely on MFA as trusted advisors to keep abreast of current and future technology,” Fleming said. “Others develop their own opinions and come in and request certain products.”

Since some brands develop seeds that work better in particular locations, each MFA location usually selects two seed brands to sell. “MFA Incorporated will continue to offer a full line of seed and seed expertise to its retailers to reflect the geographic diversity in our network,” Fleming said.

MFA looks for two things in seed:

Genetic improvements. With hybrid corn, sorghum and cotton, scientists focus on enhancing natural traits like yield, stalk quality or disease resistance. By crossing two genetically different parent plants with superior traits, you can create a plant that integrates these superior traits—the result is called hybrid vigor. It’s different for soybeans, which aren’t crossed as hybrids—they depend on other breeding methods for genetic improvements.

New traits. These usually involve genetic modification. Scientists identify a beneficial trait in one organism that they add to the target plant’s genetic makeup. According to USDA, 94 percent of U.S. soybean and 89 percent of corn were genetically modified in 2014—mostly for herbicide tolerance, but also for insect tolerance. In general, insect resistance is focused in corn lines since soybeans tend to have fewer insect pests and better existing defenses.

“Our main goal is to find the best genetics,” Fleming said. “While traits are important, they’re secondary because they enhance the plant’s genetic ability. We’ve seen significant improvement in yields from both. We continue to seek out improved seed so the producers we serve can grow more yield per acre.”

By far, the majority of seed that MFA offers are corn and soybeans, but many farmers in the Bootheel of Missouri grow cotton as well. Growers are expressing renewed interest in grain sorghum as corn prices have declined. MFA is also seeing an increase in sales of winter cover crop seed like radishes, cereal rye, turnips and clover.

New hybrids maximize water use

Fleming reports growing interest in new water optimization technology available to producers through Genuity DroughtGard corn hybrids. These products allow the corn plant to better manage available moisture during critical periods of plant development to maximize yield. This is especially important in western Missouri and eastern Kansas.

“We introduced one hybrid into our MorCorn portfolio in 2014 and are evaluating several additional products in our 12 replicated evaluation sites and at our training camps this past summer—with good results,” Fleming saids. “All of our seed partners tested their own new drought-tolerant varieties this year as well. I expect several new options to be available for 2016 spring planting.”

Glyphosate weed resistance also a concern

For about 20 years now, farmers have been planting Roundup Ready seed varieties that resist glyphosate-based herbicides. Recently, farmers are seeing weeds that are resistant to glyphosate.

“In Missouri and the region, farmers see resistance in waterhemp, ragweed, marestail and Palmer amaranth,” Fleming said. “Our agronomists have been at the forefront of addressing glyphosate resistance, adopting new strategies and methods including the use of pre-emergence herbicides, overlapping residual herbicides and the alternative trait platform—primarily Liberty Link soybeans.”

MFA will quickly evaluate new traits coming down the pipeline in the next few years. For example, Monsanto is developing Roundup Ready II Extend, which will help soybeans tolerate glyphosate and dicamba herbicides. Dow’s Enlist will resist glyphosate and 2-4,D herbicide. “We’ll see multiple-trait stacks in soybeans like we have in corn,” Fleming predicted.

Yield improvements continue

Grover Shannon, a plant sciences professor with the University of Missouri, offers hope for his specialty—soybeans. “We know a lot more about soybean genome mapping,” he said. “We’re isolating useful genes on chromosomes and we will be making a lot of progress with yield. That’s timely, because soybean prices are down, and farmers need to increase yield to make a profit.”

Rick Vierling, director of research for the National Corn Growers Association, said we’re seeing new modes of action to fight insects like nematodes, as well as fungus resistance. “New technology is being incorporated into hybrids related to viral and bacterial issues as well,” he said.

Healthier seed coming soon

Consumers continue to look for healthier foods. According to the United Soybean Board, researchers are investigating high-oleic soybeans that produce oil more like olive oil. Purdue University is researching ways to modify soybean carbohydrate content. And USDA is looking at soybeans with higher protein content and improved amino acid composition. These traits could attract higher prices.

Forage improvements come more slowly

Pasture and forage seed are also being improved, but farmers usually only reseed pasture every five to 10 years, so varietal changes come more slowly than with corn and soybeans. One popular recent improvement, endophyte-free fescue, allows cows to graze more efficiently, without as many digestive problems as regular fescue.

Who will bring the innovations?

There’s no doubt that new genetics and traits are boosting yields. To demonstrate the effectiveness of traits, Fleming points to these statistics. From 1950 to 1995, the average bushel per acre of corn produced in Missouri was 73.5 per acre. Fleming found that corn production jumped in 1996 with the introduction of seed that included the corn borer resistance trait. From 1996 to 2014, the average bushel per acre produced in Missouri surged to 127.9 per acre. Fleming believes that the combination of new genetics and new traits contributed significantly to the yield gain.

“I think we will see continued innovation from both the public and private sectors,” Fleming said. “Research at land grant universities will yield new varieties, and the research pipelines of major seed companies will deliver better genetics and new traits.”

NCGA’s Vierling adds another reason that big seed companies are leading the way—increased competition between the companies. “Corn hybrids used to take eight to nine years to reach the market,” he said. “Now it takes just two to three years.”

Feeding the world will take more than good seed

With the United Nations forecasting that the global population will swell from the current 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050, we need all the help we can get to feed the world.

“We need continuous genetic improvement and trait options that help deal with drought, weeds and insects,” Fleming said. “If we truly want to feed a growing population while minimizing our environmental impact, we need to use GMO technology on arable acres we already farm. Otherwise we’ll see food grown on marginal land or encroachment into sensitive areas like the rain forest. I’m optimistic that technology will allow us to meet food demand responsibly.”

Shannon pointed out another trend in seed purchases. With the lower prices that farmers earn today, many are looking for the lowest-cost way to operate. “They want the best and lowest-cost seed they can grow,” he said. “You won’t get those seeds for free, but the best seeds might offset the cost of herbicides.”

Pre-emergent fertilizers and chemicals that kill bacteria and fungus have been applied as seed coatings for decades—and they’re becoming a more important part of the technology package you purchase when you buy seed.

Fleming said you need both—good seed and right application of chemicals in the right amount at the right time in the right place. “Agriculture is a system,” he concluded. “MFA’s investment in precision agriculture—and the grower’s willingness to invest in this technology—will also be essential to increasing yield.”


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