Although Midwestern soybeans were hammered by desert-dry August weather and sap-sucking aphids last summer, they likely won't be as vulnerable to those and other current threats a few years down the road. Beefed-up soybeans are on the way in the next five to 10 years, say seed companies.

Soybean breeders expect faster genetic progress than in the past, largely due to the use of molecular markers when developing new varieties. Their optimism applies to both agronomic traits and end-user qualities.

“Molecular markers act as a genetic road sign indicating where scientists can look on a segment of DNA for genes related to a specific trait,” explains John Soper, Pioneer's director of soybean research. “Once molecular markers are identified, researchers can use DNA analysis early on in product development to screen for the presence of these traits.”

Seed companies continue to strive for higher yields as priority No. 1. They say increased yields will come from a combination of offensive and defensive traits.

On the offensive side, says Robert Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer for Monsanto, “We're excited about the progress we're making on drought tolerance and yield increase projects.”

By sequencing genes, Monsanto scientists are uncovering the basic mechanisms of plant responses to drought and water availability, Fraley explains.

“We're also working on a trait that could elevate soybean yield by increasing plant photosynthesis, he says. “By increasing a plant's photosynthetic capability, we can improve crop vigor and performance, while boosting grain yield and quality.”

Mark Schmidt, soybean product manager for NK Brand Syngenta Seeds, says his company's breeders also are emphasizing the various approaches to elevating yield.

“Increased yield, more than end-user traits, will continue to be the most important thing to farmers,” he says. “Commodity beans, rather than specialty varieties, will dominate the market for the foreseeable future.”

Pioneer's Soper says yield enhancement and yield protection are his firm's two major goals. And boosting defensive traits can help do both.

“We're using genetic markers to screen for resistance to soybean cyst nematode, brown stem rot and phytophthora root rot, with markers for additional traits in development,” he reports. “By using molecular markers, we're able to ensure that our varieties include key defensive traits.”

Pioneer and other companies also are screening for lines with resistance or tolerance to the soybean aphid. “We have identified certain varieties, already on the market, with above-average tolerance to the aphid,” Soper says. “Depending on the consistency of the data we analyze this winter, we may be able to provide growers with a list of the more tolerant varieties prior to 2004 planting.”

Soybean rust is, of course, a major concern for all seed companies, and it's getting front-burner attention.

“We are developing resistant germplasm in South America,” says Syngenta's Schmidt. “We believe there are sources of resistance and we will continue testing.”

Pioneer has been screening for rust resistance since 1995 in the Philippines, Brazil and India.

“We're in the process of incorporating the most promising sources of genetic resistance into our U.S. germplasm,” says Soper. “However, further breeding and testing will be required to confirm the efficacy and stability of the resistance.”

While yield is top dog, priority-wise, seed companies continue to focus on enhancing end uses.

“For example,” points out Carl Casale, Monsanto general manager for North America operations, “Monsanto has shared key genetic material with the United Soybean Board to help researchers identify the low palmitic fatty acid trait within the soybean genome. This material is expected to rapidly accelerate development of a soybean with improved oils and protein for U.S. producers.

“We also believe the use of biotechnology may allow us to develop even better varieties for soy diesel,” he says.

Bunge and DuPont, Pioneer's parent company, have formed Solae LLC to pursue end-user traits, says Pioneer's Soper.

“We're working on three categories that are important to the end-user market,” he notes.

“The first is to improve the taste of soybean isolates for human consumption by removing the beany off-flavor and making them more bland tasting,” Soper explains. “The second is to improve the functionality of the isolates. For example, we want to increase the gel strength when used in applications such as meat extenders.”

A third objective, says Soper, is to improve the health benefits of soy isolates through oil and protein modification.

Bean Breeding Priorities

Independent crop consultant Dave Harms, owner of Crop-Pro-Tech, Bloomington, IL, oversees 30,000-40,000 acres of soybeans annually in the central Corn Belt. He sees tolerance to soybean rust as the No. 1 genetic priority.

“I've seen fields in Brazil where, within three weeks after the first signs of rust infestation, the plants look as though they've been hit by a nuclear attack,” Harms says. “When it strikes in the U.S. it could cause an average yield reduction of 20% or more in the first year.”

Harms says if rust is detected early — within the first week — it can be treated with a fungicide. That should keep losses to 10-15% vs. a potential 40-100% loss. Treatment runs $15-20/acre. (For in-depth information about Asian Soybean Rust, see the special report published in the December issue of The Corn and Soybean Digest or check out www.thecornandsoybeandigest.com.)

Varieties need better genetic protection from diseases such as white mold, sudden death syndrome and brown stem rot, Harms says. They cause the most yield loss.

Mike Snyder, an independent crop consultant at Ashland, OH, walks 7,000 acres of soybeans each season. He hopes to see improved resistance to phytophthora root rot and rhizoctonia, along with white mold and brown stem rot.

Harms and Snyder also call for better genetic resistance to soybean aphids, although Harms says they can be managed by crop scouting and timely treatment.

“Based on thorough scouting last summer, we recommended treatment of many client fields in Iowa and northern Illinois by the third week of July,” he reports. “Yields often were double those of untreated neighboring fields.

“We can manage about every soybean problem with scouting and treatment as needed,” Harms says. “But soybean rust is a whole different ballgame.”