GM hybrids aren't the only "elite" germplasm. G2 Genetics' 3-H-399 AgrisureRW hybrid, with a full complement of GM (genetically modified) traits, captured headlines with a record 309.5 bu./acre yield in the North Dakota University (NDSU) irrigated corn trials. However, the runner up may suggest an even bigger story.
With U.S. growers choosing to plant 88% of all corn acres to genetically engineered hybrids in 2012, one might think the day of conventional hybrids is over. Don't tell that to Walter Albus, research agronomist at Oakes Irrigation Research Site, Oakes, N.D. He reports that DS1803, a conventional hybrid from Dairyland, took second place in the irrigated yield trials with 286 bu./acre. Adding to the feat was the minimal inputs it received.
"None of the hybrids in the plots received any seed treatments, in-furrow or over-the-top applications of crop protectants," reports Albus. "The only seed treatment on any seed was what came in the bag. All plots were replicated four times with their yields averaged for the results."
Due to several conventional hybrids’ inclusion in the trial, none of the plots received postemerge glyphosate applications. Weed control on all plots was a burndown treatment of glyphosate. A pre-emerge treatment was a pint each of Lumax and Harness with enough additional atrazine to total 0.6 lb. of total atrazine.
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Fertilizer applications were not unusual either. All the plots received 26 lbs. of nitrogen (N) in late March and another 53 lbs. during strip tillage in late April. All plots were sidedressed with 155 lbs. of N in early June for a total of 234 lbs. of N/acre, a level Albus has found adequate in the past.
"Longtime research at Oakes on N rates for continuous irrigated corn in research plots and fields has shown yields maximize between 180 and 240 lbs./acre N," he says.
The seedbed may have contributed to the high yields under low inputs, especially having been corn-free for at least seven years, reducing potential incidence of disease and insects to stress the conventional corn in 2012. "This year's trial was especially interesting," says Albus. "In the past, we’ve generally planted on soybean or potato ground for highest yields. This year we planted in last year's irrigated wheat stubble. The straw had been left, and the stubble mowed short. We strip-tilled it in the spring. In a seedbed comparison, wheat stubble plantings of two hybrids out-yielded soybean- and potato-ground seedbed yields."
Non-GM Seed Demand
Reports from companies as diverse as Syngenta to third-generation, independent, Albert Lea Seed and newcomer Spectrum Premium Genetics indicate demand for non-GM seed is on the rise.
Duane Martin, product lead, commercial traits, Syngenta, referred to increased demand for conventional seed when recently discussing the company's drought-tolerant Agrisure Artesian technology, which is native to the corn genome and is not genetically modified. "For 2014 planting, Syngenta will offer a limited supply of one conventional hybrid with Agrisure Artesian technology to the central and eastern Corn Belt," he says. “We plan to monitor this very interesting segment of the corn market to determine future entries and supply.”
Albert Lea (Minn.) Seed had very good growth on the conventional corn side of its Viking brand seed corn, reports the firm’s Mac Ehrhardt. "One factor is that Roundup isn't perfect anymore. Another is that at least one corn rootworm trait isn't as effective as it was. Some guys are saying, 'Okay, if Roundup doesn't do it alone and I (also) have to use insecticide, why plant $350/bag seed?' What drives the growth is the farmer who wants to maximize his dollar per acre return and believes he can manage weed and insect pests and wind up with more dollars in his pocket."
Spectrum founder and president Scott Odle, Linden, Ind., started the company three years ago to preserve conventional options to GMs. It's not that he is anti-GM. A farmer himself, he was an early adopter of SmartStax, and until four years ago, was 100% GM. However, today he also plants conventional hybrids.
"For the limited amount of breeding emphasis going into conventional hybrids, they still remain very competitive," says Odle. "When we started using traited products for corn rootworm, they were needed. Today there is logic to trying conventional hybrids. If you don't have corn rootworm or corn borer, it's time to take a hard look at an alternative that costs you $40-60/acre less.”
Like Ehrhardt, Odle points to increased conventional herbicide use in the face of glyphosate-tolerant weeds and insecticides for secondary insect control. "If you're using conventional crop protection products, why not plant conventional corn?" asks Odle.
Odle also points to yield trial results, such as the east-central district of the Iowa Crop Improvement Association, where seven out of the 10 top yielding hybrids were conventional. In fact, in four of the six districts one of the top 10 hybrids was conventional. He suggests that were more conventional hybrids planted in more yield trials, the results would be surprising. "GM traits are yield protecting, not yield enhancing," he points out.
Albus isn't ready to give a blanket recommendation based on one or even two plots of conventional hybrids in his trials. A second conventional hybrid, QSG 6396, yielded 267.2 bu/acre (10 bu. above the trial's mean of 257.7 bu./acre), while a third, QSG 6395, bottomed out the trials at 202.5 bu./acre.
"I'll continue to plant trait-enhanced hybrids on my own farm. It is a matter of risk management," says Albus. "However, the results with these conventional hybrids without insect protection suggest there are enough GM crops in the area that non-GM hybrids are getting less pressure from pests."
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