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The road to a topyielding corn crop may be different in 2015 as growers look at their balance sheets and start making trait decisions
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Making the right hybrid choice

Selecting hybrid seed for that top-yield corn field may be tougher than ever. The key is ROI.

Farming is all about getting the right return on investment for every tool you use whether it be a new tractor or the latest hybrid seed. The challenge for corn farmers in 2015 is that a 40% drop in the price of corn has changed the ROI equation for a lot of operations and will force you to rethink hybrid trait selection too.

"That's exactly what's going through people's minds," says Jeff Hartz, who heads up marketing at Wyffels Hybrids. "There's never been a time where it has become so important to place different technology across the same farm."

That's the challenge ahead. The biotech trait packages are out there, the key is to match them with your farm's growing conditions, pest pressures and even the markets you sell to in an effort to match hybrid to field.

Click to view larger hybrid decision chart

We spoke with leading seed companies and across the board the first step is to select the top-yielding elite hybrids best suited for your farm. It's the most effective way to boost yields and the investment is the same for a middle-level hybrid and a top-yielder. "That's square one for me - pick the right genetic chassis," says Duane Martin, product lead, commercial traits, Syngenta.

That top-yielding hybrid may need specific native traits for your farm - perhaps Goss's wilt resistance, or natural resistance to other pest pressures. Another factor that comes into play are elite genetics that include non-biotech drought tolerance traits.

DuPont Pioneer offers Aquamax and Syngenta offers Artesian. "We had a wet year this year," says Brad Van Kooten, senior marketing manager, DuPont Pioneer. "This year we saw rainfall was plentiful, and we have a fantastic crop, will next year be as good?"

Drought tolerance, including the biotech trait DroughtGard from Monsanto, may be part of the mix. Van Kooten notes that in 2014 farmers planted 10 million acres of corn with hybrids that included Aquamax. This is insurance that may be worth the investment against what has become a range of variable crop years.

Once you've lined up the top genetics for your region, the real work begins.

Trait discussions

This year, perhaps more than ever, it will be worthwhile to sit down with your seed suppliers and discuss the best trait packages for your operation. That means lining up your scouting information to better understand the pest pressures - weed and insect.

"You have to ask how much trait do I need?" asks Hank King, U.S. market leader, Mycogen Seeds, corn. "There's more risk this year than what we've had in the past."

That $7 corn gave you some investment management wiggle room. If you opted for a trait package that might have a little more than you needed it was insurance you may have felt worth the money, but lower corn prices can change that payback equation.

King explains that the decisions start with your location. If corn rootworm is a problem for you - and you're using continuous corn which can ramp up the risk, than you'll be looking for biotech traits for that problem.

"I think that the problem of corn rootworm has been masked by cooler, wetter weather," King says. "But they're still there. We're seeing some pressures in some areas. The point is to look at your options."

Adds Tom Eickhoff, agronomic systems lead, Monsanto: "It comes down to a field-by-field assessment. In you're in a continuous corn situation and you have rootworm pressure you want to have the right trait under that product. If you're coming out of a rotated acre the level of risk for rootworm may be lower."

Eickhoff notes that with the number of traits on the market the key is knowing your fields. It's that information that can help determine the amount of protection needed and make an "educated and wise decision about the traits and whether to add an insecticide to the mix."

Early on you may also want to determine the best approach for applying those genetic traits to your operation. In the past two years the concept of refuge included with the traited hybrid has become popular. It reduces the amount of refuge needed and simplifies planting management. "That practice has changed seed selection for many producers," King adds.

Those refuge-included products reduce the amount of refuge acres to 5% in the Midwest, but the susceptible plants are within your biotech field, interspersed as a way to combat insect resistance. That approach may make sense for your operation, and sometimes a structured refuge makes sense. "Operationally it depends on the individual grower as to whether a structured refuge is acceptable or whether he needs to move to refuge in the bag," says Syngenta's Martin.

The refuge-included products will expand in 2015 with a range of choices for growers as you consider this option when buying seed.

Seed treatments

In talking with the companies, seed treatments were mentioned though for many farmers the choice of seed treatment is determined by the supplier. "Often the seed treatment is matched to the location where the hybrid will be sold," says Martin.

Kevin Cavanaugh, who heads up research at Beck's Hybrids, says seed treatment should be part of the decision-making process. "There's a lot of variability in what is being offered," he says. "There are a lot of differences in seed treatments."

The choice Beck's offers customers includes a high rate of a soil insecticide, four different fungicides, nematode control and biological products too. That's a single example. There are a range of choices out there and understanding your choices here can make a difference, Cavanaugh notes. "The investment made in the last couple of years in seed treatments, not just fungicides but also biological concepts have been tremendous."

Another tactic for controlling insect pests is in-furrow application of insecticide at planting. If you're planning on using a corn rootworm trait with only one mode of action, it's recommended you add the soil-applied insecticide. In many cases, growers are using traits with two modes of action, so this may not be needed.

"If you're in an area with high corn rootworm pressure, however, it is a recommended practice," says Syngenta's Martin. "If the pressure is high enough, we might recommend a dual-mode of action trait and soil-applied insecticide."

Resistant weeds

The herbicide tolerance package for farmers has been stable for the past few years but for 2015 that could change. That's when Dow AgroSciences is targeted to have Enlist corn available for sale (there will be Enlist soybeans too - see sidebar). The company has worked hard to create an environment that educates the growers about best practices for their farms and the tech will be available in elite hybrids for the new year.

"We are anxiously awaiting the launch of Enlist in corn and soybeans," says King.

Farmers are as well, with tougher weeds to control. While glyphosate remains effective on most weeds, there are more than a dozen that are now tough to control, or have been rated as resistant. Enlist, which brings 2,4-D mode of action to weed control is a new option. The key is that the 2,4-D used with this technology - Enlist Duo herbicide - uses new a low-drift and low-volatility formulation  to prevent problems common with 2,4-D amine.

Already farmers can choose hybrids tolerant to Liberty herbicide, which offers another option for control of tough weeds. This can alter your hybrid choice because not every company offers a Liberty Link hybrid for use.

Non-GMO choice

One area that may be of interest to growers for 2015 is to avoid biotech traits altogether. "I was recently in Kentucky where growers farm near river terminals, there's a market for non-GMO corn," says Beck's Cavanaugh. "It's interesting to hear farmers talk, they've been getting good weed control and they wonder if they need a [glyphosate-tolerant] product."

Adds Hartz from Wyffels: "We can control these pests with conventional means including soil-applied insecticides, and we can spray for corn borer."

He says that there may be a premium worth considering as part of the decision to raise elite hybrids that have no biotech traits. "You need to understand the pest profile you have. We have district sales managers using sticky traps this year to see what the rootworm beetle pressure looks like, that'll help determine if we need that tech or not."

Click to view larger hybrid decision chart

Van Kooten at DuPont Pioneer says the company offers elite hybrids without traits, but hasn't found them to be too popular. "There's always more talk about this than units purchased," he notes. "It's an option for growers, but we find we don't sell many of them."

Whether 2015, with its changed income picture, will drive farmers to non-biotech hybrids remains to be seen. It's an option if you're in a region where there may be demand, but it will also put more pressure on your weed control plan for the new year.

No matter what traits you elect to buy for 2015, the underlying genetics have been constantly improving notes DuPont Pioneer's Van Kooten: "One of my favorite quotes is that in 2012 we had one of the worst droughts on record, just like in 1988 - and perhaps a little drier. The average yield in 1988 was 80 bushels per acre. In 2012 it was 120 bushels per acre. There's been an improvement in genetics, and grower skills. It's a testament to the technology."

Soybean news for 2015- Enlist arrives

Corn producers will have access to Enlist hybrids in 2015 - at least in some quantities for the market year if approved by USDA and EPA. In corn, Enlist will be stacked with SmartStax. There's news on the soybean front as well. Dow AgroSciences expects to bring Enlist soybeans in 2015, pending approvals.

The technology that provides 2,4-D tolerance to soybeans and is teamed with a new low-drift, low-volatility 2,4-D choline in Enlist Duo herbicide, which will offer soybean producers added weed control flexibility in addition to the Liberty Link tools they have today. Dow AgroSciences has been hard at work moving the technology ahead, and in August USDA issued the final environmental impact statement helping move the technology forward.

The company has also been busy developing its Enlist Ahead program, which promotes top-level application techniques and practices, as well as provides growers the tools needed to succeed with the technology. That includes a new Enlist Ahead App - available only to customers - that will users fine-tune their use of Enlist Duo in crops next year.

The tool not only helps in mapping applications, but also offers advice on the on-farm weed control program. For example, enter you weed control choices for the soybean crop into the system and it will alert you if you have enough modes of action available in your plan.

The entire Enlist program comes with a range of recommendations regarding wind speed, boom height, application rates and a recognition of off-target crops nearby.

For 2015 Dow AgroSciences expects to have Enlist with Roundup Ready 2 Yield technology.

The one hold-up, or concern, at least for soybeans is export approvals to China. Damon Palmer, U.S. commercial leader, Enlist Weed Control System, says for the 2015 season he is confident progress will be made. "We won't market the soybeans without export approvals to China, but we keep working with them and we're optimistic."

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