Tech Tuesday

Tackling Drought from the Seedbag

Seed companies are pushing the genetic envelope with crops that will be better at moisture management.

Joe Keaschall tells the story about farming dryland corn in Nebraska when he was a kid. "We usually tried to cut it for silage before it dried down too much," he recalls. "And we were happy if we harvested grain to get 50 bushels per acre."

Today, he says 100 bushels per acre is the norm for corn growing in the same conditions and he asserts - as the Research Director for Pioneer Hi-Bred's Western Business Unit - that Pioneer has been boosting corn hybrid drought tolerance for more than 50 years. And he sees technology that will push those yields even higher for farmers perhaps as early as next season.

Already, Syngenta Seeds has announced it will launch Agrisure Artesian, a line of hybrids with enhanced drought tolerance, in 2011. Pioneer is talking about potentially having a limited launch of some Drought Tolerance I - first generation - hybrids as early as next year too. And Monsanto is pushing ahead with its first generation enhanced hybrids as well.

A few editors got a look at the work Pioneer is doing at its greenhouse-like 120-acre Woodland, Calif., research facility this week. The testing shows Pioneer plenty about drought tolerance both for those using enhanced breeding technology, and some new transgenic work you could see as early as 2015.


Corn grown at Pioneer's Woodland Research Center, can be treated as if it is grown in a greenhouse with individual row drip tape for very precise application of water and nutrients. The location gets very little rain from March to October, offering field-size research "units" where plant breeders can test the latest varieties. The company is expanding the research facility. This image shows a field area where the individual rows have gotten water - showing the power of the drip tape for precise moisture research.

Keaschall notes that Pioneer has a history of dealing with drought. The company got rolling in 1926 and almost went out of business during the drought and Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. Back then when farmers were happy with their Reed Yellow Dent open pollinated varieties, the very idea that a double-cross hybrid could yield more challenged a fair share of skeptics. Truth is, those early hybrids performed better than the farmer-saved-seed lines and the company was off and running.

Today, Pioneer is applying it's Advanced Yield Technology system to determining which traits work to boost drought tolerance, and Keaschall says when the company's first hybrids labeled as drought tolerant hit the market they'll have specific yield targets. "We're saying we'll outyield our top drought-performing hybrids by 6% or better with these new lines," he notes.

He notes that comparing the new drought-specific hybrids to other lines challenges plant breeders. "We've been working for 50 years on improving corn for performance under drought conditions," he notes. "We used this new breeding technology to help us find the traits that are giving us that performance. And we worked to move those traits into new hybrids."

That's similar to how AYT was used for soybeans, taking 50 years of soybean breeding and mapping those best varieties looking for traits that were common for yield in the lines. This time it was traits that were common in the best drought-performing hybrids refined over 50 years of breeding at the company's York facility.

Once those traits were found, plant breeders went to work breeding for those traits using traditional methods. And the first-generation drought tolerant crops well be products of that enhanced breeding, not biotech lines. However, Keaschall says that for the next-step drought tolerant lines, traditional breeding isn't enough and the Drought Tolerant II line will be transgenic.

While the dryland corn areas of Kansas and Nebraska are prime targets for these first generation drought beating hybrids - from almost any company - Keaschall does note that most growers face some kind of "drought" during the corn growing season. Longer-term, these first-generation drought traits will probably make their way into a lot of corn hybrids as companies work to help protect yield under even short-term drought stress.

As plant breeders, using the latest in gene mapping tools, start asking which traits actually do what in a plant; we'll see more traits and enhancements in the hybrids and varieties available for the farm. There's a lot of farmer interest in drought-tolerant lines out there.

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