The rise of the use of biotech traits in agriculture remains an astounding phenomenon. In less than 20 years, the use of insect and weed-control traits has risen above the 90% mark for both corn and soybeans in the latest figures released by USDA.

Download a table of the accompanying chart to this story (PDF)

It's the success of the technology and its efficacy that has farmers buying, but these days the choices availble to the corn seed buyer alone is tremendous. "We see confusion from customers and competitor's customers," says Jill Wheeler, Syngenta product lead, commercial traits. "The number of stacks available to meet a variety of needs can be overwhelming."

As always an informed dealer can help a farmer pick the best traits, but it's also a good idea to walk into that conversation armed with some knowledge of key selection issues too. Wheeler notes that managing modes of action is as important in seed traits as it is with the crop protection products you use.

And no matter whose trait package you look at there are ways to be sure you're doubling up on modes of action when dealing with tough pests.

Resistance questions

Managing modes of action for both insect and weed control traits is a hot topic. The rise of glyphosate-resistant weeds means changing up your weed control practices, but the herbicide tolerance trait still has plenty of value for keeping most weeds under control. The bigger question is a worry over cases of corn rootworm resistance developing in some pockets of the country.

"I think we've learned from history that corn rootworm has overcome a number of management tactics," notes Tom Eickhoff, Monsanto corn systems lead. "It's overcome several classes of insecticides, overcome rotation…it's certainly a dynamic and challenging pest."

If you're dealing with that problem it makes sense to look at your total corn rootworm management strategy, Eickhoff advises. "I think the conversation starts with assessing the field and the overall pressure and the past cropping history for that field," he notes. "The choice might be a Genuity Smart Stax hybrid or consideration to rotate to an alternative crop. You want to use the best tool to get the corn rootworm population to a manageable level."

Smart Stax, which includes technology from Monsanto and Dow Agrosciences includes Herculex traits, which Ben Kaehler, U.S. seeds general manager notes is the "most widely used trait in the marketplace today." The company's Herculex corn borer trait, while not first on the market, was able to bring a broader-spectrum above-ground trait to market that "expanded protection that growers got with an above ground Bt trait," he adds."

Herculex, in fact, is included in a lot of stacks beyond Smart Stax including Optimum trait packages from Pioneer and Agrisure traits from Syngenta. This table (PDF) notes those traits and their inclusion.

There's a new sheriff in town for control of corn rootworm and it represents a new mode of action too. Syngenta will offer AgriSure Duracade for the first time. The trait, following Syngenta's usual approach, will be paired with the AgriSure RW trait to provide dual modes of action. "We don't put single-trait insect control packages into the market," says Jill Wheeler, Syngenta product lead, commercial traits.

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Duracade is an engineered protein that Wheeler says combines the consistent action of a lepidopteran control trait with the power of a coleopteran trait. "We've been spoiled by the consistency of the lep traits, this is the first hybrid Bt protein," she explains.

As with herbicide products, switching out modes of action for insect control makes sense too, the challenge is knowing who is using what in their trait packages to manage that. The table on page 29 details the traits used in each of the transgenic packages offered for 2014.

Refuge managed

For 2014 managing refuge will be as easy as ever. Every major corn seed market is offering in-bag solutions that go by a few names. Essentially a structured, or integrated refuge, seed companies are offering programs that allow you to just load and go and the bag takes care of the required refuge in the field.

In most cases the structured refuge is 5%, a move that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as companies described how including refuge in the bag would work for farmers.

Newer solutions are all single-bag offerings. "There's a lot of interest in structured refuge," says Reed Mayberry, DuPont Pioneer senior corn marketing manager. "We're moving into the Optimum AcreMax Extreme lineup for 2014 which offers two modes of action above and below ground for insect control. We were the first with an integrated solution with AcreMax 1."

Trait packages from the major providers - Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto and Syngenta - are 'siloed' in some ways for many seed companies. "We can't pull together the traits from one company and combine it with another," says Jeff Hartz, director of marketing, Wyffels Hybrids. "We can offer farmers products with the different trait packages, but our ability to mix and match is limited."

Wyffels has five full-time plant breeders working to enhance genetics in their corn lines all the time. They're also working with key trait providers to offer packages for customers. "The challenge for the customer is making sense of the choices."

That's not always the case, but it can limit choices. DuPont Pioneer has made agreements with trait providers to mix and match in its lines, which means you can find traits from Monsanto, Syngenta and Dow in single hybrids. That's not always the case. For example, companies in the Channel lineup - owned by Monsanto - will offer the Monsanto line of traits. And, as noted, you'll find Herculex traits from Dow AgroSciences are included across lines.

Independent providers like Wyffels and Beck's work with trait providers to bring packages to market - but mixing and matching is more rare. The good news is that mixing up modes of action for insect control is easier because trait packages from the different providers have different active ingredients.

Keys to success

Picking a hybrid trait package starts with understanding the problem you want to solve. If you're in an area without corn rootworm pressure, then a solid above-ground insect control package makes sense. You'll also want to consider your weed control program. Is glyphosate tolerance enough, or do need to switch to a package with glufosinate tolerance.

Dow's Kaehler points to seed sites that help producers pick the trait packages they need on their farms by traits available. "There's confusion out there," he notes. A good example is Triumph Seed, and you can check its trait tool at triumphseed.com/products/triump-technology-tool/.

Understanding the weed and insect pressures you face will help you best manage the problem. Then balance your approach with the mode of action you're using too. The chart on Page 29 shows not only what's available but the modes of action at work.

Looking ahead, soybeans and more

For 2014 reliable choices abound, the future gets more interesting

Growers looking at soybean traits for 2014 will focus on the genetics available and they'll have familiar choices for biotech. Roundup Ready 2 Yield is the go-to glyphosate tolerance trait seed providers are using. "It's always about putting the best-yielding products in farmer's hands and Roundup Ready 2 technology brings some advantages in some types of germplasm to enable getting the best performance to the grower," says Scott Erickson, soybean genetics portfolio manager.

While you'll still be able to find the original Roundup Ready tech in some top-yielding soybeans, the industry is moving toward this newer tech pretty fast. "Roundy Ready continues to be a big player," says Andre Trepanier, DuPont Pioneer senior manager, soybean product marketing. "It's part of our STS management product too." That product allows farmers use sulfonylurea herbicides with those soybeans.

DuPont Pioneer reached an agreement with Monsanto earlier in 2013 to bring Roundup Ready 2 tech to its soybeans. "We'll have the technology available in a pretty broad range of varieties from 00 to Group 5," Trepanier says.

The hot product some were looking for in soybeans - Roundup Ready 2 Extend which would confer dicamba resistance to the soybean is on hold pending an Environmental Impact Statement from USDA's Animal, Plant and Health Inspection service. The move has pushed the introduction for the new product to 2015.

The same holds true for Dow Agroscience's Enlist technology that brings 2,4-D tolerance to crops. While corn was to be the first and the rollout was aimed for 2014, the EIS has pushed the Enlist launch to 2015 as well.

“Pending regulatory approvals, Dow AgroSciences will introduce Enlist corn, Enlist soybeans and Enlist E3 soybeans in 2015. Enlist E3 soybeans are being jointly developed by M.S. Technologies and Dow AgroSciences,” says Damon Palmer, U.S. commercial leader for the Enlist Weed Control System. “These Enlist crops will provide growers tolerance to Enlist Duo herbicide, a proprietary blend of new 2,4-D choline and glyphosate. In addition, Enlist corn will provide tolerance to FOP herbicides and Enlist soybeans and cotton will provide tolerance to glufosinate.”

In the meantime, Dow AgroSciences is working on stewardship and training in advance of the launch. “Enlist Ahead is a management resource that will help growers, retailers, seed sellers and applicators,” Palmer says. “They will get the technology advancements, management recommendations, and education and training they need to adopt and use the Enlist system with confidence. One training opportunity is the Enlist 360 field training. This summer, Enlist 360 offered education and training on Enlist at five regional Technology Centers. We also worked with growers across the Midwest to experience the technology through on-farm research plots.”

For 2014 the go-to tech for soybeans will be Roundup Ready, Roundup Ready 2 Yield and Liberty Link offering producers choices for mode of action management for best weed control.

There are other tech-based opportunities too. Trepanier points to DuPont Pioneer's Plenish soybeans. "We continue to work hard on Plenish and develop our line. He notes that the company is working to broaden the geography where the Plenish trait will be available, the high oleic/low-linoleic acid soybeans have a range of potential trait benefits for food processors and industry.

Patent note and future tech

For farmers thinking about the future of Roundup Ready soybean tech and the end of Monsanto's patent of the tech in 2015, Trepanier notes that while 2016 might be the first year farmers would have that tech patent free, that doesn't mean seed saving is in the future. "We are actively protecting our other patents that are covered and we have more than 200 patents covering our soybeans today."

ADDED FOR THE WEB: Bayer CropScience and MSTechnologies have been working on Balance GT which combines tolerance to isoxaflutole - the active ingredient in Balance Bean herbicide with tolerance to glyphosate. The product recently received approval from USDA for cultivation, so it's moving forward in the regulatory process. You can look for Balance GT by mid-decade.

Syngenta and Bayer CropScience are working together on a new trait that'll be available later in the decade that they're calling  MGI. It'll be another tool in the toolbox for weed control offering a trait that confers tolerance to three herbicide active ingredients - mesotrione, glufosinate and isoxaflutole. "This offers multiple modes of action," Scott Erickson says. "We're bringing a lot of ammunition to bear to fight resistant weed issues."

Ben Kaehler, U.S. seeds general manager, Dow AgroSciences, notes that even Smart Stax will get a revise later in the decade with new trait tech to control corn rootworm. "Resistance is a concern for us," he notes, adding that Smart Stax has two modes of action below ground. "We recently reached an agreement with Monsanto for their new RNAi3 trait to be added by the end of the decade."