Two-thirds of Grover Shannon’s soybean breeding program is dedicated to Roundup Ready varieties. When farmers call nowadays, however, it’s almost always about the third dedicated to conventional varieties.

“Monsanto is a great company and they’ve done a lot of good things with Roundup Ready soybeans (which were introduced in the mid-1990s),” says the University of Missouri professor, stationed at the Delta Center in Portageville, Mo. “You’ve got to hand it to them. The Roundup Ready system is easy to use. Some farmers won’t ever quit it — they like it too much. It provides more time to work on other things around the farm.”

Some 95 percent of U.S. soybeans grown are Roundup Ready, points out Shannon, who recently returned from his soybean nursery in Vietnam. “That’s proof positive how popular it is. There are no rotation issues with Roundup and weed control had been pretty easy until resistance started popping up.”

However, growers are facing increased costs and are looking to alleviate some of the pressure on bottom lines. Seed, herbicides, land rental — “everything is on the table, for some. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case in a stronger economy.

“It’s worth putting a pencil to. Conventional varieties are becoming more competitive. Consider: in 2008, the cost of Roundup went up from $15 to, in some places, $50 a gallon. This year, costs for Roundup Ready seed has jumped from around $30 to between $40 and $50. That is forcing growers to consider their options — especially because there can be premiums offered for conventional varieties. Personally, I don’t think GMOs are a problem, but some countries don’t want any.”

The case for conventional beans is bolstered by farmers who have grown them successfully for years in the midst of an overwhelmingly Roundup Ready landscape.

“I know farmers that never went with Roundup Ready. Now, other farmers are looking at that and asking, ‘Well, would it be more economical to switch back to conventional varieties?’”

After releasing several conventional varieties recently — including Jake — Shannon and colleagues “were kind of surprised at the response. We’ve noticed that the interest in conventional has been rising for while.”

The first uptick in conventional soybean interest came in the fall of 2007, says Shannon. “It really picked up speed in 2008 when the price of Roundup was announced. Then, even more calls came when the price of seed increased. Basically, farmers got sticker shock.”

The calls have only jumped since.

“Since last fall, especially, I’ve gotten numerous calls about conventional beans. Farmers know that as more and more conventional seed gets out, the cost could be half as much as Roundup seed.”

Another thing farmers are well aware of is the increase of Roundup-resistant weeds. In many situations, affected fields already require conventional, residual herbicides. Since that’s the case, “they tell me, ‘Why not consider conventional if I’m being forced to use something other than Roundup?’”

However, farmers considering a return to conventional varieties need to remember the crop will require more management. One of the keys to success is planting into a clean field and staying on top of weeds.

“Fourteen days after emergence is when you need to apply the post-emergence herbicide. Timeliness is essential with conventional beans. If fields are kept clean, they can really work. If conventional seed is planted in fields that are too weedy, farmers are going to be badly disappointed.”

Other questions from farmers: Will conventional varieties perform as well as the Roundup Ready varieties? Will they have to sacrifice yield?

“I don’t think they will. We always put a top-yielding Roundup Ready variety in all our conventional trials as a check. We released an early Group 5 variety, Jake, that has yielded as well as some of the better Roundup Ready varieties in the same maturity group.”

A grower must be careful to choose the right conventional variety. But if he does that, “yield shouldn’t be sacrificed. Good conventional varieties are available. UniSouth Genetics, Hornbeck Seed, the University of Arkansas — with Osage and Ozark — and others have very good Group 5s. I’m not sure how the conventional varieties will compete with Roundup II or Optimum GAT. But I don’t see why they won’t be in the same ballpark.”

Nowadays, most conventional variety breeding programs are in public programs. “Among them: University of Tennessee, University of Missouri, University of Arkansas, Mississippi State University, Kansas State University, North Carolina State, the University of Illinois and some others. If we didn’t have public programs, there would be little choice for farmers.

“The problem right now is we were caught off guard and there’s not enough conventional seed. The demand blew up so fast and I don’t see it dropping off.”

Shannon laments the smaller list of good Group 4 conventional varieties. “We need more of those. Some of our research is focused on Group 4s, but we’ll probably release another early Group 5 soon.”

Another thing worth noting is the lack of a patent on many conventional varieties. On a PVP (Plant Variety Protected) variety, “a grower can save seed and plant it the next year. He just can’t sell it to his neighbors. If seed isn’t patented and not PVP, he can do anything he wants to.”

Shannon doesn’t recommend that because it can “lead to legal problems if the seed is mixed up. And bin-run seed is competing against professionally-grown, high-conditioned seed, so quality is always a concern. In my opinion, a grower should try to get good, proven seed. But that’s his choice with some conventional varieties.

“Also, if he’s carrying all this seed to the elevator wanting non-GMO varieties, it’s easy to mix it all up. More than 1 percent GMO in a load and he’s looking at the load being rejected.”

Another worry about conventional varieties: keeping track of them in a Roundup Ready world. If conventional varieties are accidentally sprayed or drifted on with Roundup, they’ll soon be “crispy. The neighbors also need to be aware of any conventional bean fields a farmer is planning to plant.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com