Corn is expected to remain the commodity of choice for many producers, buoyed by continued strong demand. Seed companies are responding by increasing the availability of stacked-trait hybrids in their lineups. Growers can expect good availability of these hybrids in a wider range of genetic packages.
Monsanto is rolling out on a large commercial scale the YieldGard VT Triple trait in corn, which combines Roundup Ready technology, YieldGard corn borer protection and the second generation of YieldGard corn rootworm protection.
“We've adopted a new insertion process, called Vectran (VT), that very precisely places the gene on the chromosome,” says Dion McBay, U.S. marketing manager for YieldGard corn traits. “As YieldGard VT expresses the Bt protein throughout the plant, it delivers a higher level of insect control and sets the stage for higher yield potential.”
The company had 1.5 million acres planted in 2007 in limited commercial release and expects to plant up to 15 million acres in 2008. “There will be ample supply in leading genetic offerings,” McBay says. “The growth curve has been tremendous.”
Dow AgroSciences expects continued adoption of its Herculex corn traits. “Herculex will be in more hybrids, in a larger amount of germplasm and in additional seed brands,” says Ben Kaehler, business leader for traits and germplasm licensing at Dow AgroSciences. “In addition, we are expanding our breeding program to bring more products to market.”
The company also will push its silage lineup. “We have BMR lines that are in the fifth and sixth generation of the product,” says Doug Vail, sales and marketing leader for Mycogen Seeds. “We continue to see significant growth in these products.”
The newest stacked-trait offering available from Syngenta is Agrisure 3000GT, a glyphosate-tolerant and Liberty-tolerant corn with corn borer and corn rootworm resistance. “Agrisure 3000GT offers two modes of action for herbicide control,” says Chuck Lee, head corn product line for Syngenta. “That's important for maximum productivity. Farmers need to increase yield to meet the huge corn demand. If producers have planted a glyphosate-resistant corn, they can use the Liberty option to control volunteer corn in a corn-on-corn rotation.”
Pioneer calls it the next level in herbicide tolerance. Optimum GAT is the company's new proprietary glyphosate-tolerant trait that also offers resistance to acetolactate synthase (ALS) herbicides.
“Optimum GAT will come to the soybean market in 2009, but there will be demonstration plots available for producers to evaluate this new technology,” says John Soper, soybean research director at Pioneer. “Optimum GAT will provide an alternative to Roundup Ready technology and provide a second mode of action. This is the first trait with a dual mode of action tolerance to herbicides.”
Full commercial availability is expected in 2009 for soybeans and 2010 for corn.
“Optimum GAT is a highly competitive product that will give producers flexibility for weed-control management,” says David Bubeck, corn research director for Pioneer.
Pioneer also will expand the number of triple-stack hybrids available for 2008 — those with Herculex Xtra (Herculex I and Herculex RW) and Roundup Ready traits.
2009 and beyond
Researchers continue to work to bring new seed technology products to market that combine cutting-edge plant breeding with the latest transgenic technology.
One of the hot areas of plant-breeding research is insect control. While current corn rootworm and corn borer resistance technology is highly effective, and has proven to be widely accepted in the marketplace, researchers are looking at other modes of action that will provide both above-ground and below-ground insect protection. “Multiple modes of action will help preserve this technology in the long term,” Bubeck explains. “We want to ensure that we are doing all we can to be one step ahead of the bugs and develop products that reduce the likelihood for resistance.”
Continue reading on page 2: 2009 and beyond 
Dow AgroSciences plans to market its Dow AgroSciences herbicide tolerance (DHT) trait for corn in 2011 and for soybeans in 2013. “This new trait technology improves and enhances the performance of glyphosate and glufosinate cropping systems by enabling the use of additional broad-spectrum herbicides with differing modes of action in both burndown and postemergent applications,” Vail says. “This will provide effective, broad-spectrum control of broadleaves and grasses.”
Monsanto expects to have a significant number of soybean lines in testing that contain the new Roundup RReady2Yield trait and plans a limited release of the seed in 2009 and full release in 2010.
Drought-tolerance technology is also on the front burner. However, it's not simply a matter of producing a hybrid that can use less water. “Dry conditions can impact corn in varying degrees throughout the growing season, and it differs depending on the area of the country,” Bubeck says. “We're looking for drought genes that have broad applications.”
Monsanto is bringing quality traits, such as Omega-3, to soybeans. And the company says soybeans with tolerance to Dicamba (Clarity, Banvil) are also in the initial testing stages, which would bring yet another weed-control option to producers.
Then there's the area of fungal diseases. “Certainly, fungal diseases are yield-limiting factors,” Bubeck says. “We have products in the pipeline that will address these problems.”
Output traits — the industrial uses for corn and soybeans — also are on the drawing board, or in initial steps of development. And efforts to bring soybean cyst nematode resistance and aphid tolerance to soybean genetics continue.
“Traits will continue to be an important tool for the seed industry,” says Tom Strachota, CEO of Dairyland Seed. “Trait providers are investing heavily to bring new products to market, and that will increase the choices for producers.”
But the bottom line will remain genetic performance. “Traits are good, but at the end of the day it comes down to genetic performance in the field,” Strachota says. “That's what keeps you competitive.”
SOYBEAN SEED Although corn remains in the driver's seat, that doesn't mean soybeans are taking a back seat. “The market in soybeans is good for growers to generate additional profits,” says Scott Stein, Asgrow soybean product manager.
More consumers are becoming interested in zero-trans-fat products. “With the demand for zero trans fats increasing rapidly, we see an opportunity for the U.S. grower to grow our Vistive low-linoleic soybeans,” Stine says. “The Vistive market has been growing and gaining acceptance. We are boosting supply to meet an expected increase in demand.”
Stine Seed's David Thompson says more soybean varieties will carry the Vistive trait in 2008. “Farmers like the product,” he says.LONG AND WINDING ROAD
SEED COMPANIES say that it can take seven years for a new corn hybrid to go from idea to reality. Along the way are hundreds of thousands of plant crosses that are evaluated, tested and tested again — all for a product that might stay in the company's lineup for five years before it's replaced with the next new product. For soybeans, the development time line may be shorter, but it still takes a minimum of five years for a product to go from concept to seed bag.
For biotech traits, it can be an even longer (and more expensive) process. The typical biotech trait can take anywhere from eight to 10 years to make its way to the marketplace. And while traits may stay in the market much longer, they incur the additional expense of meeting worldwide regulatory approval on top of their development costs.
A single traited product may cost a company up to $100 million to develop and bring to market. That's before a single bag of seed is sold.
Plant breeders take a lot of swings and misses before they hit a home run. “Plant breeding comes down to a numbers game: the more crosses you evaluate, the more likely you will find the best products,” explains David Thompson, marketing manager at Stine Seed. “A lot of our plant breeding work will never see the light of day.”
New technologies have helped the plant breeders in their work. “Now it's a thinking game as well,” says John Soper, soybean research director for Pioneer. “We use our genetic marker technology to determine what goes into a cross, so the results are not as random. With a genetic profile of the parental lines, we try and match up the results to ensure all genes in offspring are there.”
Still, millions of data points are analyzed, because each trait in a soybean plant may be controlled by many genes.
An elite soybean variety for the 2008 product year probably started as an initial cross at least five years ago. Evaluation, increasing seed production, and testing in a wide range of environments then followed. This was all done for a product that might reach its peak sales in another two years before fading, either because it falls out of favor with producers or is replaced with another variety.
What assists soybean and corn breeders is winter nurseries scattered throughout Central America and the Southern Hemisphere, as well as at tropical locations like Hawaii.
For corn, hybrid development can take from seven years (on the low end) to a decade. Critical evaluation of each hybrid is conducted over a wide range of growing conditions.
On top of the push for yield advantages is the relatively new push for hybrids with a variety of transgenic traits. “The whole research and development world has become complex and highly orchestrated,” says David Bubeck, corn research director for Pioneer. “And while we have some great new tools, the process hasn't gotten easier, and seed books haven't gotten smaller. We can have one hybrid line with several different options. The challenge is to develop these different options for our customers while ensuring they are the best products available.”