WHAT'S SO smart about the new SmartStax biotech package? Plenty, if you like the idea of high corn yields, aboveground and belowground insect protection, and flexible weed control all rolled into one product. Plus, U.S. Corn Belt growers can now reduce their refuge acres from 20% to 5%, and Southern growers can drop their refuge acres from 50% to 20%.

Codevelopers Dow AgroSciences and Monsanto say this unique package of benefits will prompt 20,000 growers across Corn Belt states to plant SmartStax hybrids on up to 4 million acres in 2010, making this launch the largest market introduction ever for a corn biotech seed product.

But that's just a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to future sales plans the companies have for the eight-gene, six-trait biotechnology stacked product.

Monsanto estimates the global market potential for SmartStax is about 105 million acres, with the U.S. market potential at between 60 and 65 million acres over the next five years, according to Matt Kirkpatrick, Monsanto corn traits marketing manager. That's huge, considering U.S. growers planted roughly 85 million acres to corn in 2009, the third-largest corn crop since 1949. Essentially, Monsanto is counting on capturing nearly three-fourths of the available U.S. corn acres for SmartStax hybrids.

It's all about yield

Increased yield opportunity is the lifeblood of new corn hybrids, which have an average life span of only three to four years. Kirkpatrick says SmartStax is designed first and foremost to boost production on every acre planted to it, which supports Monsanto's goal of helping growers double their average corn yields in the United States by 2030. He attributes the SmartStax yield potential to the intense research and development focus Monsanto places on the trinity of breeding, traits and trait integration. Trait integration is the process that combines traits, such as those in SmartStax, with elite germ-plasm. Monsanto's trait integration process enables a hybrid to reach its full yield potential while minimizing the potential for weaknesses, such as a small root system or poor standability.

“SmartStax is coming out in our newest hybrids and will be well tested, so we're confident it's going to yield as advertised,” says Fritz Behr, vice president of agronomic research for Wyffels Hybrids, Geneseo, IL.

Behr says corn growers who live in areas with traditionally high levels of insect pressure will be early adopters of the technology while growers with little to no insect pressure may be slower adopters. He believes the lag time between early and slow adoption will be brief, however, because of growers' opportunity for higher whole-farm yields. Ultimately, Behr expects SmartStax hybrids to account for nearly 75% of Wyffels' business by 2014.

Dan Johnson, corn research director for Kruger Seed Company, Dike, IA, agrees with Behr's assessment. “In our sales area we see the biggest initial fit for where growers have embraced rootworm protection,” Johnson says. “Growers know the benefit of the traits and are excited about planting 15% more of their refuge acreage to a biotech product, especially in northern Illinois and eastern Iowa. Some of those growers may pick up an additional 10 to 30 bu./acre on that 15%.”

Monsanto estimates that farmers who adopt the use of SmartStax will have the opportunity to increase whole-farm corn yields between 5 and 10% over existing triple-stack corn. In high-yielding corn environments (200+ bu./acre), this creates roughly $40 to $80/acre of value.

That additional value is good news for growers in high-yielding environments because the cost of SmartStax hybrids is about $130/acre, a cost that amounts to 17% more than growers have paid for YieldGard triple-stack products.

Johnson says that, beyond the yield boost, there may be an added benefit to SmartStax for the corn industry. “The 5% refuge will make it easier for growers to comply with refuge requirements, and many of them will be able to place it on their end rows where compaction issues already contribute to yield loss,” he says.

For on-farm evaluation purposes, Kirkpatrick encourages corn growers to plant SmartStax hybrids in an entire field. “That way you get to see the advantage of a 5% refuge as opposed to the 20% refuge,” he says.

Of 501 corn growers Monsanto randomly surveyed across the Midwest in 2009, 92% said they would be interested in trying SmartStax hybrids in 2010.

Dow SmartStax hybrids are sold in the Mycogen, Triumph, Dairyland, Renze and Brodbeck brands. Monsanto Genuity SmartStax hybrids are available through its national brand, DeKalb and regional brands. Monsanto also is licensing the technology to independent seed companies for use in their hybrids.

For 2010, SmartStax hybrids are available in hybrids with an 83- to 113-day relative maturity. Growers can expect to see a broader range of products available in 2011.

Good-bye bugs

Along with the expected yield boost on former refuge acres, growers can expect to see more total yield across their farms as a result of improved insect control.

“Growers have gotten away from spraying a lot of the aboveground insecticides, and belowground insecticides aren't as consistent as biotech protection, which isn't affected by weather conditions,” Behr contends.

Johnson agrees, noting, “With SmartStax, that protein is always in the root and can't go anywhere.”

“That protein” refers to the three crystal proteins (Cry proteins) built into the SmartStax hybrids, which provide both aboveground and belowground insect protection.

“This expression of multiple Cry proteins, due to the pyramiding of genes, is what increases the spectrum and consistency of insect control and also should reduce the likelihood for resistance issues,” says Mike Gray, University of Illinois entomologist. “The combination of Cry proteins is what really makes this product unique.”

He explains that the Cry proteins bind to specific receptors in an insect's intestinal lining. That leads to a rupture of the insect's mid-gut cells, causing the insect to stop feeding within hours and to die within two to three days.

SmartStax offers control of above-ground pests, including corn earworm, European corn borer, southwestern corn borer, sugar cane borer, fall armyworm, western bean cutworm and black cutworm. Control of belowground pests includes western, northern and Mexican corn rootworms.

Gray says, historically, only sweet corn growers and seed corn producers have been keen to prevent earworms, which can cause extensive kernel damage. Now commercial corn producers are showing interest in earworm control because it can minimize the potential for disease development. Kirkpatrick says Monsanto estimates that corn growers across the country lose 2.5 to 7% of their annual corn yield to corn earworm, with that higher percentage occurring in southern states.

“I think growers may see an additional ½ to 5 bu./acre by controlling corn earworm,” Johnson says.

Genuity SmartStax will be treated with Monsanto's proprietary Acceleron seed treatment product to boost health, improve standability and support the control of insects.

Johnson points out that if growers don't have significant insect pressure, they may be able to use different hybrids for a better return on investment. He notes, “Scouting and using soil-applied insecticides are still an option, but if SmartStax usage follows the pattern of other insect protection traits, growers may find benefit on acres where there was not a perceived insect issue.”

Gray adds that he encourages corn growers who do not have access to SmartStax hybrids to be sure to fully implement their 20% refuge requirement for other Bt products.

Whipping weeds

Weed-control experts are divided in their opinion about the usefulness of having both glyphosate and glufosinate tolerance included in SmartStax. Glufosinate is marketed by Bayer CropScience as Ignite herbicide and is advertised as the only nonselective herbicide alternative to glyphosate.

On one hand, having the option to use either glyphosate or glufosinate gives growers increased flexibility in their weed-control program.

On the other hand, Christian Krupke, Purdue University entomologist, says he is concerned about the potential for the occurrence of resistance in volunteer corn, particularly in corn-on-corn rotations.

Kirkpatrick says Monsanto understands the industry concern about the potential for resistance. He encourages growers to check out the recommendations and prevention tips the company provides on its Web site, www.weedresistancemanagement.com.

More information about Ignite can be found at www.bayercropscienceus.com.

Looking ahead

Kirkpatrick says SmartStax has secured import approvals in Australia, Japan and New Zealand. Import approvals are pending in Korea and Mexico but are expected in plenty of time for planting.

Growers, in select states, who plant SmartStax hybrids next spring can receive a discount on their crop insurance, as part of the Biotech Endorsement (BE) program.