Pioneer Hi-Bred says drought-tolerant corn hybrid seed, in development for years, will be available for the western Corn Belt in 2011. In announcing the initial line-up of Optimum AQUAmax products, company officials said research has shown the new hybrids provide, on average, a 5 percent yield advantage in parched environments.

The company expects the first offering of new hybrids to be available in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Texas where field evaluations have already been carried out. Since 2008, Optimum AQUAmax hybrids have been tested in 220-plus water-limited efficiency trials.

However, continuing a seed company trend, Pioneer spokesmen said none of the hybrids were made available to university researchers for testing prior to release. They indicated those university tests could take place in 2011.

Although the hybrids will be packaged with transgenic traits, the AQUAmax technology itself does not include a transgenic component. However, Pioneer’s work on a drought-tolerant transgenic work is ongoing.

“We anticipate the release of that (drought-tolerant) transgenic component, combined with an AQUAmax hybrid, in the mid- to late part of this decade,” said Jeff Schussler, Pioneer Senior Research Manager, Maize Stress Product Development, during a Jan. 5 press conference.

The Pioneer spokesmen also made it clear the new seed could not simply be dropped in parched ground and left to prosper.

“Because drought is a complex issue, managing crops in drought-stressed environments is also critically important to achieving performance results,” said Monica Patterson, Pioneer Senior Marketing Manager.

How do the AQUAmax traits work in the plants?

“We’ve evaluated the AQUAmax hybrids under a multitude of drought-stress environments … defined by our in-class system that allows us to identify both the timing and severity of the stress,” said Schussler.“We’ve found these hybrids do provide protection against drought-stress induced yield loss at all stages of development.

“This is the advantage of using our genome-wide predictions. We’re moving many, many genes around simultaneously. That gives you more power to adapt to multiple environments.”

Further “we’ve realized in our research that we need to have multiple solutions to address (drought). ‘Multiple solutions’ indicates, or infers, multiple genes and multiple approaches such as native variation and, hopefully, transgenic variation on down the road.

“We don’t see any single silver bullet. Herbicide tolerance and insect control tend to be simpler, single gene traits and can be addressed more predictably. … Such is not the case with drought – and we’ve been able to address that with our technology.”

The company’s drought research is not stagnant. “This is an ongoing research effort with Pioneer … that will continue far into the future.”  

Will this potentially mean less watering in areas with limited irrigation?

“To date, our studies have focused on evaluating the products under water-loaded conditions provided by nature, primarily – not so much looking at limited irrigation environments where, for example, you’re reducing the number of pivot passes,” said Schussler. “That represents one of our expanded forms of research we’re planning this year. … We don’t yet have that data for recommendations.”

Five hybrids for 2011

The 2011 Optimum AQUAmax products will include five hybrids in a variety of maturity groups and technology packages.

What about seed prices?

Pioneer will price the new hybrids “for the value that the product delivers the customer, very consistent with the way we price our other products,” said Patterson. “Products will be competitively priced in the marketplace.”

Any plans to go international with the new hybrids?

Current products “have been specifically developed for growers in North America,” said Patterson. “Whether Pioneer expands these hybrids to other markets globally certainly depends on our breeding programs there and the needs of the markets in other regions of the globe.”

Is there any yield advantage for the new hybrids when they get adequate/timely rainfall?

A proprietary environmental monitoring system “allows us to collect meteorological data at research sites and to utilize that data in a plant-growth model that allows us to understand severity of drought stress at each location,” saidSchussler.“In general, we use that to split out our research sites into ‘stress’ and ‘non-stress’ locations so we can very clearly understand the performance of these hybrids in both those types of environments.”

For “fairly severe drought-stressed locations, (normal) yield levels are always below 150 bushels per acre – often, more like 100 bushels per acre. … When we compare (the new hybrids) to other environments where yields were higher and there was irrigation/higher rainfall, we see yield parity and no yield penalty.”

Patterson claimed the “really exciting thing we’ve seen is two-fold. In one respect, we’re seeing a yield advantage under water-limited conditions. On the other hand, the AQUAmax hybrids are also offering excellent yield potential under more favorable growing conditions – throughout the central Corn Belt, for instance.”

Any visual differences in the new hybrids are “very small -- nothing the farmer will see as very dramatic,” said Schussler. “We just know these hybrids … have been able to partition water more efficiently towards grain growth. But they aren’t particularly different in plant size, height or leaf appearance.”  

Pioneer waited to release the hybrids until they were in “elite genetics and the technology packages our customers are requesting in the target environments,” said Patterson. “In 2010, we did a large-scale, on-farm systems trial with growers … just to verify on-farm performance in real world conditions. We’re really excited to report we’ve seen an average 5 percent yield advantage very consistently across the target market.”