Roundup Ready soybeans still may be the easiest to grow, but not necessarily the most economical anymore, according to Grover Shannon, University of Missouri (MU) agronomist at the Delta Research Center. As chemical prices continue to climb and weed resistance follows it up the chart, farmers have been calling Shannon and other soybean specialists across the country to talk about alternatives.

“Roundup costs went from $15/gal. in 2007 to $40-50/gal. in 2008. That was a pretty good shock to growers,” Shannon says. “I've heard reports that in 2009, the cost of Roundup Ready seed could go as high as $50/bag.”

The more prices escalate, the more Shannon's telephone rings. Mostly farmers want to talk about switching back to conventional, or non-Roundup Ready, soybeans to reduce costs.

“They've started comparing costs and saw the conventional system was just as cheap,” he says. “Most farmers already add a conventional herbicide to glyphosate for weed control, due to the spread of glyphosate-tolerant weeds.”

If you choose conventional soybeans, you have an “arsenal of herbicide choices,” according to Shannon, that costs less than the Roundup Ready system. One tradeoff is that conventional PPI, pre- and post-emergent herbicides require a higher level of management than the Roundup Ready system.

Other advantages to conventional soybeans include overseas markets for non-biotech soybeans and the ability, in some cases, to save seed for the next year's planting.

“We've had growers contract conventional, or non-biotech soybeans, for as much as $1/bu. or more over the Chicago price,” Shannon says.

THE MU AGRONOMIST warns growers that not all conventional soybeans can be saved — traditionally referred to as brown bagging — for the next year's seed. “If you buy conventional soybean seed from a company and the bag says it includes patented traits, it is illegal to save the seed for use the next year,” he explains. “If the bag says the variety is certified under the Plant Variety Protection (PVP) Act, you can save seed to use for the next year's crop, but it is illegal to sell the seed. Lastly, if you use a public variety that isn't protected by a patent, PVP or other agreement, you can both save and sell the seed.”

Conventional varieties are scarce, but many universities still maintain non-Roundup Ready breeding programs and make seed available as a public variety, according to Shannon. “Two years ago, we released Jake and Stoddard. They're both conventional varieties that are adapted to many soil types and show broad resistance to SCN,” he says. “They yielded as well as or better than the Roundup Ready beans.”

There are other risks to bin-run beans, points out Kevin Coey, director, F.I.R.S.T., an independent research company that conducts annual yield trials on corn and soybeans. “Your bin-run seed is competing against professionally grown and conditioned seed,” he says. “Those companies have invested millions of dollars to figure out how to sell seed with the best yield potential possible. If you aren't careful, your yields could fall short of your neighbors' using Roundup Ready technology.”

That's particularly true in weedy fields, according to Shannon. He recommends using Roundup Ready soybeans in fields with high weed pressure.

If you consider conventional beans for your 2009 crop, Shannon recommends that you carefully consider the variety you purchase and buy your seed early. “Demand exceeded supply for our public varieties in 2008,” he says. “We'll have a larger amount of seed available for 2009, but I doubt that we'll have enough.”

Shannon also cautions that spray drift is still an issue.

Monsanto, of course, could throttle that demand if it lowers Roundup prices, according to Shannon. “The Roundup Ready system is a great success story, but in a lot of farmers' minds, the price is out of hand,” he says.