If they weren't previously, Monsanto's DroughtGard products are now squarely on the radar of most every U.S. farmer.
Most know it's the first biotech product designed to mitigate the effects of drought. Most also realize corn won't grow without water. Don't expect 200-bushel yields in conditions like last year. In an investor presentation, chief technology officer Robb Fraley says 2012 trials showed more than a 5-bushel advantage with DroughtGard in instances where water is limited in the Western Great Plains.
"It's also important to point out there's no yield drag in a non-stress year," adds Mark Lawson, Monsanto's yield and stress research and development lead.
Most I-state farmers are also probably keenly aware that DroughtGard products will be launched in the Western Great Plains first. Next year the first hybrids will be grown in Monsanto's limited commercial launch.
What many farmers may not know is how DroughtGard works. Just how did a collaboration between Monsanto and BASF bring agriculture a plant that uses water more efficiently?
As with most biotech discoveries, DroughtGard's story starts with a bacterium. Specifically, it's called Bacillus subtilis, a bacterium that is used in the production of natto from soybeans.
From here, BASF and Monsanto scientists experimented with a specific gene, cspB, from Bacillus subtilis. They found cspB improves cold tolerance in bacteria. Hence, cspB stands for cold shock protein B.
Further investigation revealed cspB codes for an RNA chaperone. Lawson says RNA chaperones help cells function more effectively when they're under stress. Using this knowledge, they engineered the plant to protect against drought stress, a much bigger threat than cold tolerance in the U.S.
When inserted in this manner, cspB helps slow the plant's water uptake up to the flowering stage, when the plant is under drought stress. Lawson says this helps stave off water usage until the plant really needs it – for reproduction.
"It allows the plant to buy itself some time and shifts the water usage to a later time frame," he notes.
Of course, Monsanto stresses that corn will not grow without water. So, while DroughtGard will improve performance under drought stress, no corn hybrid will stand up to the most severe conditions like those seen in 2012.
Monsanto notes that DroughtGard is a systems approach. First is the hydro-efficiency that comes from cspB. Next is the base germplasm. Last is following recommended agronomic practices. Lawson says this includes boosting on-farm water efficiency with no-till.
Instead, Lawson says DroughtGard really shines when fields receive reduced rainfall. In reduced yield situations in the Western Great Plains (80 bushels), researchers are seeing DroughtGard consistently outperform other leading hybrids, including other Dekalb-brand numbers.
With 2013's DroughtGard commercial release, growers will be asked to sign a stewardship agreement.
As of press time, DroughtGard had not received certain key international regulatory approvals. If those approvals are not in place by harvest, it means all grain from DroughtGard corn must be marketed domestically.
Lawson expects DroughtGard product supply will be much higher in 2014. The products will be available in Monsanto's Roundup Ready Corn 2, Genuity VT DoublePro and Genuity VT TriplePro trait platforms. The initial launch will not include a DroughtGard offering in Genuity SmartStax.
In 2013, Monsanto will conduct additional research in central Corn Belt states to ascertain whether the product will provide any benefit to I-state farmers.
Farmers weathering 2012 are learning plenty about everything from crop insurance to seed genetics as parched conditions reshape farm business across the country. Consider our 5-part approach to moving ahead after the toughest drought since the 1930s.