Seed companies are making their last-minute push for customers for 2008, hoping to place their seed on a few more farms. The mantra of the fall and winter selling season seemed to be 'go with hybrids with traits.' Most, but not all, are GMO traits, including Bt corn borer and Bt rootworm resistance. Ads promoting these traits sometimes, either on purpose or by accident, leave the impression that if you want big, healthy root systems, you need to plant the triple-stack hybrids - or at least hybrids with traits.
"That's simply not how it works," Dave Nanda says. He's a long-time plant breeder in Indiana and elsewhere, and currently is consultant for the Corn Illustrated project and magazine supplement exclusive to Indiana Prairie Farmer. Recently, he presented his thoughts about root systems and the relationships to traits to a group of farmers.
"Just because you have Bt protection doesn't mean you will get big, healthy roots," Nanda says. "What the Bt trait does, especially the Bt rootworm trait, is protect whatever root system that hybrid has from damage due to insects. But the size of the root system is controlled by genetics, not by whether the hybrid has a GMO trait or not. That's the part that confuses farmers."
Nanda has no qualms with selecting traits as long as you know why you're doing it, he notes. His company, Bird Hybrids, LLC., Tiffin, Ohio, offers hybrids with either traits or no traits, in various combinations, depending upon what the customer believes they need. What concerns him is the growing perception that just because a hybrid contains traits, it is superior, particularly in its ability to produce big root systems.
"We've had hybrids in the past during my career of developing hybrids that had big root systems, yet weren't amongst the top yielders," he notes. "Sometimes the plant diverts so many nutrient sot growing roots that it doesn't have as many nutrients left over to put into the ear as some other hybrids might. We've also had hybrids with root systems that were nothing to brag about that were amongst the leaders in yield for their era. It all goes back to genetics and what the hybrid was selected and bred to do."
In the presence of insects, hybrids with traits may wind up with better root systems because the trait wards off rootworm larvae and protects the developing root system. But in the absence of insects, having the trait for root protection in the hybrid doesn't guarantee bigger roots, Nanda stresses. It's all about the genetics bred into the seed that determines rooting ability and yield potential.
Many companies are now introducing traits into their elite genetic breeding programs, rather than developing elite hybrids, then breeding in traits. That may produce a system where more of the top-yielding hybrids have traits, not just because of traits, but because the traits were in the best genetics available in the first place, Nanda notes.
Meanwhile, his hope is that farmers are not fooled by the perception that traits mean big roots, and big roots mean big yields. Instead, select hybrids based upon what qualities you need on your farm, he advises.