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Corn Crop

There was something profoundly different about the 2007 Commodity Classic show. For the first time since the start of the 21st century, low commodity prices were not a major point of discussion at the event among the more than 4,000 attendees. With corn, soybeans, and wheat all enjoying healthy bumps in per-bushel prices since the beginning of the year, talk at the Tampa Convention Center instead turned to other key issues, many of which will undoubtedly shape the marketplace for retailers and their grower-customers throughout the balance of the year.

In this special on-the-scene report, CropLife® looks at the top areas of interest from this year’s Commodity Classic.

•  More Corn, Of Course

Perhaps the biggest buzz at the 2007 Commodity Classic centered on the unprecedented demand for corn. Depending upon whose projections you believe, there will be somewhere between 6 million and 12 million more corn acres planted in 2007 than in 2006. In addition, many researchers foresee many grower-customers embracing a continuous corn planting model from this point forward to take advantage of higher corn prices instead of relying on the traditional corn-soybean-corn rotation.

Not surprisingly, a number of Commodity Classic exhibitors took this news of predicted corn acres to heart. As result, several companies promoted the ability of their particular crop input to help boost corn yields. According to Dan Froehlich, U.S. agronomy manager for The Mosaic Co., there are six fertility implications that producers should consider and factor into their management plans when working with a continuous corn model. These include performing soil tests to accurately determine the soil’s needs, increasing nitrogen (N) applications by 30 to 50 pounds per acre since corn residues tie up more N than soybeans, using more starter fertilizers, adding micronutrients such as sulfur and zinc to the mix, tracking N application timing, and applying more phosphorous (P) and potassium (K).

“If that soybean crop is now to be corn, it’s quite likely that there simply won’t be enough nutrients for the corn crop,” said Froehlich.

In a similar vein, EMD Crop BioScience touted the ability of its Optimize LCO Promoter Technology to help increase corn yield in fields that had previously grown soybeans. According to the company, four replicated trials conducted by an independent researcher found a 4.9-bushel per acre increase in corn yield when it was rotated from a soybean field previously treated with Optimize.

Since one of the factors in rising corn prices ties to the growth of the ethanol business, a few companies were busy working on corn hybrids specifically targeting this market. At Monsanto Co., the company is introducing Processor Preferred High Fermentable Corn (HFC) products in more than 90 of its seed offerings. According to Troy Hobbs, corn biofuels strategy lead for Monsanto, Processor Preferred HFC seeds can provide 2% to 4% more ethanol per bushel compared with average seed.

Not to be outdone, Syngenta Seeds is working on a variety of corn hybrid that incorporates an alpha amylase enzyme into high yield seed traits, elevating the crop’s ethanol production capacity above that for regular corn. According to the company, this hybrid should be available in time for the 2008 growing season.

•  Remembering Soybeans

Although corn received the lion’s share of discussion, soybeans weren’t completely ignored. Perhaps most significantly, the United Soybean Board unveiled its Soy 2020 initiative. With the objective to create a vision for the future of U.S. soybeans with an eye toward a global leadership role, Soy 2020 seeks to bring together all companies and growers with a vested interest in soybeans with a common goal — making the U.S. soybean value-chain as a whole successful. Initial sponsors of the plan include Monsanto and John Deere.

“It’s important for everyone to understand that this is an absolutely inclusive vision,” said Eric Niemann, United Soybean Board chairman. “It’s not meant to single out just soybean farmers or just seed companies or just end-users. Everyone will have their role in making this a reality.”

In other soybean news from the Commodity Classic, the quest for healthier foods is apparently catching on. For this reason, Monsanto is expanding the availability of its Vistive low-linolenic soybeans in 2007 to 10 states, including Iowa, Illinois, and parts of Indiana. The trait is offered in 28 different seed varieties from the company.

•  More Proof Of Plant Health

In a special press briefing, BASF provided attendees with more evidence that its corporate Plant Health campaign works. According to Andy Lee, company director of business operations, U.S. crop protection products Andy Lee, on-farm field trials in 2006 found that the use of BASF’s Headline fungicide increased average yields in corn by 12 bushels to 15 bushels per acre and 4 bushels to 8 bushels per acre in soybeans. These kinds of increases are important in a world hungry for biofuels, he added.

“We can no longer afford to wait,” said Lee. “The growing demand for ethanol and biodiesel necessitates an increase in production, and technology is helping make that happen today.”

As an added bonus, BASF research also found that the use of Headline can help protect crops from frost conditions. According to Dr. Gary Fellows, technical marketing manager for corn and soybean fungicides and herbicides at the company, Headline-treated corn at the one-leaf stage (3 inches to 4 inches) had a 70% survival rate after three hours of freezing conditions. This compared with a survival rate of only 45% for untreated corn plants.

•  Expanding Seed Types

For the 2007 growing season, Monsanto is introducing its new YieldGard VT seed variety. The first product in the line is YieldGard VT Triple, which contains the second generation of the YieldGard rootworm trait, the YieldGard corn borer trait, and Roundup Ready 2 technology.

According to Dion McBay, Monsanto’s corn trait marketing manager for YieldGard products, YieldGard VT technology combines the traits into a single DNA-insertion process called Vector-stack transformation. In this way, two or more genes are inserted together, side-by-side, into plant chromosome, which speeds up the development process.

“Because we enhanced the trait integration process for producing stacks, growers can get elite germplasm with better, higher yielding traits six to 12 months faster,” said McBay.

In 2007, Monsanto plans a limited launch of YieldGard VT planting on more than 1 million acres, mostly in the central Corn Belt states of Iowa and Illinois.

•  More Precision Advances On The Way

With the expected increase in acres for corn and wheat, John Deere is borrowing a page from its earlier work with cotton. Utilizing precision agriculture technology, digital mapping, and variable-rate systems, the company is launching its OptiGro System to help optimize yields and improve nitrogen (N) and crop input use in corn and wheat. It can also slow populations of weeds, making control treatment programs more effective, said John Mann, vice president, strategic marketing for John Deere Agri-Services.

“The whole system starts when the grower contacts an authorized reseller such as an ag retailer,” said Mann. “The adviser then helps to set field boundaries and to order special imagery through the Internet.”

Digital photographs from an airplane are then taken of the corn or wheat fields and information is relayed back to the adviser on line. Special software — the OptiGro Zone Maker program — translates the images into management zones with similar plant characteristics, based on reflected light.

“The adviser then checks the zones and scouts the fields to determine crop needs and writes a prescription for each zone,” said Mann. “The digital information can then be captured and shared with an applicator with variable-rate capabilities to apply the product.”

Meanwhile, keeping its eye on automatic steering growth, Trimble displayed its new EZ-Guide 500 system to attendees. The unit features a 7-inch LCD display, data logging functions, and multiple accuracy options. It can be installed on any type of ag equipment, said the company, including sprayers and fertilizer applicators.

•  Basics: Pumped About Their Pipelines

Not so long ago, it seemed like commodity growers would be able to ride the wave of biotech insect and weed protection traits for many years to come. Today, the threat of weed resistance, new insect pressures, and the increasing potential payoff for higher yields in row crops has all the research-based crop protection and seed manufacturers talking about their brightest long-term product development pipelines. From DuPont‘s development of its Optimum GAT (glyphosate- and ALS-tolerant) trait to Monsanto’s pursuit of drought tolerance in corn, there’s a lot of chatter now about longer term development ranging from 24 months out to more than 5 years from all the basics.

While talking pipeline is nothing new for the basics, the discussion is, in our estimation, more than a demonstration to retailers and growers of their long-term commitment to agriculture. It provides evidence why a retailer should choose a given company as a true marketing partner.

•  Summing Up: Nervous Excitement

Going into the event, we had hoped that the Commodity Classic might provide some clarity about the 2007 season. But talking to dozens of people in Tampa only presented more questions. It seemed as if everyone wanted to get on with the season and stop speculating. Practically everyone expects to see corn around $4 at the end of the year, but already there are people lobbing doomsday scenarios. For example, one expert told us that if corn acreage approaches 90 million and the weather is favorable, “corn could crap out at $2.50.”

A horrible thought, to be sure. But then again, no one said agriculture was easy …

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