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Features Agronomy Genetics/Traits
Genetic selection a year-round process

Growers doing all they can with high prices.


November 13, 2007
By Ralph Pearce


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16aAs conditions appear to be improving for growers, there might be a tendency
to be less diligent in monitoring all facets of production. The rationale might
allow for the notion that since prices are better than they have been for years,
there is no need to micro-manage to eke out every little advantage.

Not so, according to Dave Townsend, field agronomist with Syngenta Seeds in
Arva, Ontario. Townsend cites a growing trend that recognizes the importance
of things like genetics, and the need to be mindful throughout the year, so
as to make the best, most informed decision at the time of purchase. Overall,
Townsend believes more growers are receptive to the idea, one that has been
driven primarily in the recent past by lower commodity prices and higher input
costs. Trying to optimize every facet has become a standard operating practice
in the face of these harsh realities.

Still, there is the need to spread risk, broaden the portfolio of hybrids,
and maintain some degree of diversity, even when prices for corn are good. "Growers
have to find the hybrids and the genetics that work well on the fields, and
that means in replicated on-farm trials or at least enough trials that the information
can be broken down," says Townsend. "The trials that we do with the
Ontario Agricultural Commodity Council are in high yielding environments, yet
not everybody farms those high yield environments, so companies are in better
shape to break down information, and the growers need to ask the right questions."

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One of those questions includes how the hybrid performs in various soil types
compared to how it performs in a high yield test plot environment. Growers are
getting better at not grasping at the 'hot hybrids' and showing more patience
in assessing their on-farm needs based on past performance. "They start
looking at the traits and say, 'I have corn on corn, so I need a hybrid that's
going to do well in corn ground, plus I need a rootworm advantage or a Poncho
high rate', so there's a selection process on a field-by-field basis,"
explains Townsend. "I have two large acreage growers and I ask them, what's
the soil type like, is it a high or low yield field, what type of hybrid has
worked really well in the past and what hybrid can I get that's similar to that?"

Genetics by any other name
Hybrids generally change every three years but the traits the hybrids bring
do not change, adds Townsend. Some growers are better at paying attention to
genetics, even though they may not link standability or grain quality directly
to genetic research and application. The better growers, he says, realize that
a buying decision is merely the end of the process, which means they are doing
their assessments during the spring, summer and early fall.

"The really good growers are looking at plots to find traits and they're
using other sources of information," says Townsend. "A really super
grower would have his own plot and start looking to find traits he wants like
disease resistance, good roots, ear placement, ear mould resistance, drought
tolerance, leaf architecture and he'll be making notes as he goes into September."

By the time harvest arrives, that super grower is assessing the hybrids in
those plots based on properties like standability, grain type and maturity.
That provides him with more information to make a selection for his portfolio.
Townsend notes the next step then, is to take that portfolio and match it up
to the yields that tweak that selection process one step further.

Another concern for Townsend is the proximity of the genetics. Much of the
corn genetics originates in the US and Townsend believes growers should try
to understand the role 'point of origin' plays in their particular fields. "In
my opinion, local breeding and testing in your local market gives you superior
hybrids because you're selecting hybrids based on the local environment,"
he says.

For many years, some of the smaller companies were accepting hybrids from Wisconsin
or Minnesota, simply because they were from a similar latitude. However, that
trend has been shifting closer to Ontario in the past few years, with the top
three or four seed companies ensuring they have the right seed for the right
region. "There aren't very many genetics that are widely adaptable or that
would work as well in Min-Dak as they would in Ontario or Ohio or New York."

Want it all, want it now
Asked what may be driving this 'genetic awareness', Mervyn Erb puts it down
to competitiveness in the marketplace. As an independent consulting agronomist
from Brucefield, Ontario, Erb says the immediacy factor of one year's growing
season adds to competitiveness. In 2006, ear mould became the hot issue, so
more growers might be inclined to look for hybrids that have better natural
resistance or tolerance for that.

"Breeders are saying that in this day and age when they have so much to
choose from, everybody wants it all, and it's hard to bring all the traits at
one time," says Erb, citing the wheat sector as a prime example. "They
want fusarium tolerance in wheat, plus fairly strong straw so it stands up and
holds those big heads up, then we also want test weight, rust resistance, high
protein and good milling qualities."

In corn, adds Erb, the mantra has been big stalks, good roots, before suddenly
shifting to excellent plant health and fast drydown. One company in the 1970s
had great yielding hybrids with little or no standability. "Then you look
at Pioneer getting to where they did, it was because they concentrated on stalks
and root quality, as well as keeping the yield and test weights there,"
says Erb.

Disease management is another area that Erb believes could be improved with
more genetic research. As a proponent of maintaining tillage in management systems,
he says the trend towards no-till means more trash in the fields and combined
with warmer winters, it offers a better environment for disease hosting. That
leads to growers having to make a decision: rely on genetics to tweak the resistance
levels in varieties or hybrids, or simply increase their reliance on fungicides
and other chemical treatments.

"And that's okay, relying on fungicides can be done, but from an environmental
standpoint, it's kind of nice to be able to control it genetically," suggests
Erb. He adds the convenience factor, of making it easier for growers who are
holding off-farm jobs, is yet another facet of the genetics versus chemical
debate. If growers are stressed for time, they may not be able to micro-manage
their fields with the same eye on genetics doing the job. -30-