THE USDA'S March 31 planting intentions report indicated that corn acreage will be up 1% from 2004 while soybean acreage will be down 2%. USDA estimated that 81.4 million acres of corn will be planted in 2005 which, if realized, will be the largest corn acreage since 1985.

Stacked traits

Similarly, seed sellers are anticipating a slight increase in the number of corn acres and a slight decrease in the number of soybean acres based on orders over the last few months. What other trends are they seeing? More stacked traits, for one, as growers continue to adopt biotech products with herbicide tolerance and insect resistance traits. Another trend is greater use of seed treatments to protect increasingly valuable seed.

“About half of our sales are for stacked traits,” says Kyle Maple, U.S. corn marketing manager, Monsanto Company. The company has seen “great” growth in its DeKalb and Asgrow seed corn brands, he adds.

This was the first year for triple trait technology in both brands. Monsanto introduced seven hybrids in 2005 with protection against corn borers as well as corn rootworms in combination with tolerance to its Roundup agricultural herbicides. These products, known as hybrids with YieldGard Plus and Roundup Ready Corn 2 technology, are increasingly appealing to growers who want above and below ground protection against insect feeding coupled with a flexible weed-control system, Maple says.

Ron Milby, manager, Growmark Seed Division, Bloomington, IL, also has observed that more growers are choosing triple trait hybrids, especially in the northern half of Illinois. More growers are buying hybrids with the Roundup Ready trait as they gain experience with channeling grain into feed, he says.

Tom Hooper, sales manager, Beck's Hybrids, Atlanta, IN, adds that European Union approval of the NK603 event with glyphosate herbicide tolerance removed an important trade barrier. Now growers selling grain to river markets are more comfortable with producing glyphosate-tolerant corn, Hooper says, adding that he has seen glyphosate-tolerant corn acreage double since last fall. “With higher fertilizer and land costs, growers are pressed on economics,” Hooper says, suggesting that they can realize some operating cost savings with a glyphosate weed-control program.

Demand for Herculex I also was triple the Indiana company's expectations, Hooper says. Although it has not been approved yet in Europe, grain corn containing Herculex I Insect Protection and Roundup Ready Corn 2 has recently received approval for import into Japan. Herculex I offers in-plant insect protection, and Roundup Ready Corn 2 offers resistance to glyphosate.

In Minnesota, some farmers have switched to Liberty-herbicide-tolerant technology, says Shane Freese, Croplan Genetics district sales manager and seed division manager, Watonwan Farmer Service, Truman, MN. This is because they are a bit concerned about possible weed shifts as the result of using glyphosate on both soybeans and corn. As far as other popular traits are concerned, he says, “Bt is a constant.”

“European corn borer-resistant hybrids are popular across the Corn Belt where ECB is a threat,” agrees Bill Fleet, vice president, North American sales, Pioneer Hi-Bred International.

The demand for Bt corn is still strong in Nebraska, says Herb Hasenkamp, Central Valley Co-op, Oakland, NE. The cooperative's lineup includes Mycogen Seeds hybrids with the YieldGard trait. Hasenkamp also has observed continued growth in sales of Roundup Ready corn and is starting to see increased interest in hybrids with built-in protection to corn rootworm. The Nebraska cooperative's sales of hybrids with protection against corn rootworm were double to triple what they were last year, Hasenkamp says.

Treated seed

Growers who are planting earlier than they once did are recognizing the importance of protecting early-season stands, and seed treatments are becoming more a part of their cultural practices, Fleet says. In particular, he has seen growth in sales of Poncho 250 and Poncho 1250, which were developed by Gustafson.

Poncho 250 for corn provides early-season protection against black cutworm, wireworm, white grub, seed-corn maggot, grape colaspis, flea beetle, chinch bug and other early-season pests. Poncho 1250 is made to protect against corn rootworm in areas of low to moderate infestations as well as black cutworm, wireworm, white grub, seedcorn maggot, grape colaspis, flea beetle, chinch bug, billbug and other insect pests.

“Each seed is so valuable now that farmers have invested as many dollars in soybeans as they have in corn on a per-acre basis,” Beck's Hooper says. Not surprisingly then, growers want to protect the seed throughout the growing season. “We introduced a program last year where we priced treated soybeans the same as untreated soybeans, and we saw real benefits toward the end of the growing season,” Hooper says.

“There has been good demand at the retail level for CruiserMaxx Pak treatment in its first year,” says Tom Hunsley, soybean and wheat product manager, Growmark. This seed treatment is a commercially applied combination of Cruiser insecticide and ApronMaxx brand fungicide. It protects seed from bean leaf beetle and soybean aphid, and all major seed- and soilborne diseases, including those caused by Pythium, Phytophthora and Rhizoctonia, says Kurt Sieren, soybean product manager, NK Brand Syngenta Seeds. “Because of the superior insect protection, CruiserMaxx Pak can reduce the incidence and severity of the bean pod mottle virus, which is transmitted by bean leaf beetle feeding,” he says.

In corn, use of Cruiser Extreme Pak treatment continues to increase, says Jeff Jorgensen, corn product manager, NK Brand Syngenta Seeds. He attributes the treatment's popularity to convenience along with early-season pest and disease control.

On-site seed treatment options are available at many licensed NK Brand TruBulk bulk soybean seed dealerships. This allows growers to make seed treatment decisions right up until planting, Sieren says.

John Latham, marketing director, Latham Seed Company, Alexander, IA, notes that as soybean seed prices have increased so have sales of fungicide seed treatments, such as SoyGard (developed by Gustafson). A combination of the systemic fungicides azoxystrobin and metalaxyl, SoyGard protects against Pythium, Rhizoctonia and early-season Phytophthora as well as secondary diseases.

Latham says his company's sales of SoyGard-treated soybeans have doubled, adding that growers want to guard against having to replant and to ensure good stands. “Ten years ago a bag of soybean seed cost about $14. That's almost doubled today. With the increased price of soybean seed, growers like the insurance that seed treatments provide,” Latham says.

Soybean seed demand

Latham also has seen increased demand for large-seeded soybeans. “Many companies are now selling by seed count, and there are bargains for farmers,” he says. He explains that a grower buying 140,000 units could end up with an extra 10 lbs. of seed for the price of a 50-lb. bag. “Selling by seed count takes seed size completely out of the equation and allows growers to choose a variety on yield and disease resistance characteristics,” he says. “Growers also like knowing their seed cost per acre when they purchase their seed in the fall.”

Although the price of Roundup Ready soybean seed increased last year, this seed is still gaining market share, Latham says. “Growers like the easy, flexible Roundup Ready weed-control system, and yields have been improving,” he adds, noting that prices for glyphosate herbicides have dropped in recent years.

Although growers dislike paying high trait royalties, they have nonetheless increased their purchases of Roundup Ready soybean seed, says Growmark's Hunsley. “Roundup Ready is the preferred trait everywhere. It had been less popular in southern Illinois, but seems to have increased share there significantly,” he adds.

“The value of the Roundup Ready trait as well as soybean cyst nematode [SCN] resistance has been demonstrated to growers,” Hunsley says.

NK Brand Syngenta Seeds' Sieren agrees that growers continue to adopt SCN products. “And the country continues to purchase high levels of Roundup Ready soybeans, as high as 90% in many areas,” he says.

Bulk seed

Another trend is continued interest in bulk soybeans. “Because this convenience continues to deliver real value to the soybean grower, we have expanded the number of bulk soybean delivery systems for 2005,” Sieren says. “With TruBulk, dealers can accommodate growers during the busy planting season by decreasing loading time and physical labor, as well as allowing growers to choose a seed treatment as they pick up their seed.”

The bulk seed concept also has grown in corn. Jim Happel, corn product manager, Growmark, notes that this was one surprise this season. “Growers are buying more bulk seed,” he says. “We sold more hard-sided boxes than anticipated. The market was up nearly 100%.”

Asian soybean rust

One of the reasons that soybean acreage may be down this year may be the looming threat of Asian soybean rust. The disease was carried by winds into the U.S. and was first discovered in Louisiana last November. Growers were made well aware of it by several sources, and seed representatives indicate that the threat of the disease definitely delayed some buying decisions. Tom Schaefer, U.S. soybean marketing manager, Monsanto, says, “The threat of rust and the economic impact on soybean production certainly affected their decisions.”

A report from the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service indicates that the greatest decrease in soybean acreage will occur in Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi, where 63% of the survey's responding farmers are planning to decrease soybean plantings.

However, the survey also indicates that the disease's entry into the U.S. has not changed farmers' planting decisions in Iowa. Schaefer notes that this is also the case in northern Illinois and Indiana. “Producers here are aware of rust, but they aren't overly concerned,” he says. This probably is because soybean rust will not survive winters in more northern states. Moreover, growers in these states have had time to plan how to manage the disease.

As always, diseases, insects, weather patterns, trade issues and a host of other variables can impact crop production at any time. Corn may be up and soybeans down this year, but the reverse could happen in 2006. One thing seems sure, however. The adoption of biotechnology-derived input traits and seed treatments is steadily rising. It will be interesting to see if the same happens with output traits when they begin hitting the market in the coming years.