Conventional soybean varieties are making a comeback. Lower seed and weed-control costs, price incentives at the grain elevator and yields that rival Roundup Ready beans have renewed interest in conventional varieties, says Grover Shannon, an agronomist at the University of Missouri (MU) Delta Research Center. In the 1990s, Monsanto introduced soybeans and other plants genetically modified to tolerate its popular herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). Now there's a resurgence of interest in conventional soybean varieties. Farmers can grow them cheaper and they will yield just as well, Shannon says.

Shannon discussed his conventional-variety breeding program at the MU Delta Research Center field day, Sept. 2, in Portageville. Overseas demand for non-biotech soybeans and the tripling of costs for glyphosate herbicide have made conventional varieties more appealing to many growers, he says.

Roundup costs went from about $15/gal. last year to $40-50/gal., he says. That was a pretty good shock to growers. So they got to comparing things and saw the conventional system was just as cheap. Many farmers already add a conventional herbicide to glyphosate for weed control due to the spread of glyphosate-tolerant weeds, Shannon says. The conventional herbicide systems are about as cheap if not cheaper than using just the Roundup system.

Reflecting overseas demand, grain elevators have been offering a premium for conventional soybeans. Last winter, growers could go to some of the local elevators and get a contract for non-biotech soybeans for $1 or more over the Chicago price, he says.

Another draw is the ability to save seed from conventional varieties, Shannon says. With the proprietary Roundup Ready soybeans, farmers must purchase new seed each year.

The fact is, if conventional beans are grown, seed can be saved to plant the next year, and then growers aren’t out the seed costs. That's the way all farmers used to do it, he says. But with Roundup Ready beans, they’ve got to pay $40 or more for a bag each year.

The MU Delta Center has continued a conventional-soybean breeding program even as most private companies moved to an exclusive focus on Roundup Ready beans, Shannon says. Two years ago, the center released Jake and Stoddard, two conventional varieties that have attracted interest for their adaptability to many soil types and broad resistance to soybean cyst nematode.

The cyst nematode situation has gotten worse because most varieties now trace to one genetic source, he says. The Jake and Stoddard varieties trace to a different source that has more resistance. They also carry some resistance to root knot nematode.

These traits may help farmers expand their acreage and boost yields, Shannon says. “They respond to good management, like anything else. We've got a lot of farmers with soybeans that usually aren't put on the very best ground. But now that soybeans are commanding $15/bushel, farmers are planting on better soils.”

Farmers with a weed-control problem may want to continue with the Roundup system and plant their conventional varieties on cleaner fields, says Shannon, who encourages growers to book their seed early. Last year there just wasn't enough seed, he says. This year there will be more choices. However, demand is still high.