Protecting the Program – Missouri’s Soybean Breeding Research and Dicamba

For Pengyin Chen, the 2017 growing season began with both promise and optimism. As leader of the Southern Missouri Soybean Breeding Program at the University of Missouri Fisher Delta Research Center in Portageville, he was looking forward to continuing the quest for “better beans,” seeking out new lines with novel traits to benefit soybean producers in the Show-Me State and beyond.

Pengyin Chen

Chen planted his first research plots, known as “breeding blocks,” on April 12. Within those blocks of conventional soybean, the next variety expressing superior yield, soybean cyst nematode tolerance, drought resistance or even greater high-oleic oil content may have been waiting to be discovered.

But Chen wouldn’t get an opportunity to find it in 2017.

The first signs that something wasn’t right were noticed at the beginning of May, then two weeks later, more symptoms appeared. By the second week of June, it was clear to Chen what had happened: Off-target dicamba exposure had compromised the research, evident by the fact that dicamba-tolerant beans planted in the block were flourishing.

“We had symptoms in all of our breeding blocks,” says Delta Center Director Trent Haggard. “Not just one or three of 10 but all of them. Symptoms were routinely fieldwide.”

For Chen, the result was devastating.

“2017 was pretty much a wasted year,” says Chen, the David M. Haggard Endowed Professor of Soybean Breeding, with a defeated tone. “Every single plant was affected. Nothing escaped. The data is not usable because there’s no way to tell if there are genetic differences or differences caused by dicamba injury.”

The dicamba debacle
Of course, Chen wasn’t alone in dealing with issues with dicamba in 2017. Across Missouri, officials estimated that more than 325,000 soybean acres were injured by off-target movement of the herbicide during the growing season. In southeast Missouri, where both dicamba-tolerant soybean and cotton were planted, the impacts were most pronounced.

Soybean producers who planted conventional varieties or varieties only tolerant to other chemistries found their crops vulnerable to injury and potential yield loss. Researchers across Missouri raced to determine the reasons for the off-target movement as the season progressed. As injury reports began to mount, regulators responded. In mid-July, the Missouri Department of Agriculture issued a statewide order to stop the sale and use of herbicides containing dicamba in an effort to stem further troubles.

For soybean producers who experienced dicamba-induced symptoms, the true extent of injury or actual yield loss varied by when the off-target movement impacted the crop. However, for Chen’s soybean-breeding program, which is supported by checkoff dollars through the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council, the cost went well beyond unrealized bushels, totaling more than $500,000 in lost research effort and valuable genetic material.

“Disappointment. That’s probably the best word to use,” says MSMC chairman John Kelley of what transpired in 2017. “There was a lot of money spent for research on which we’re not getting any results, and that’s a real disappointment. You hate to see checkoff dollars get spent with no return.”

Chen says the impact of dicamba exposure on non-tolerant conventional soybean varieties in his breeding blocks went far beyond the cupped leaves that producers likely observed in their fields.

“The dicamba forced the plant to grow a trifoliate leaf at the first node, which is not normal. The first node is supposed to be two leaves, two cotyledon leaves,” he explains. “The plants were forced to branch out sideways, and then the branches were very brittle. You shake it, and they just bent over. The dicamba changed the biology of the plant.”

Trent Haggard

Chen estimated his yields to be reduced by an average of eight to 12 bushels. But the real loss is yet to be fully realized. Previous research at other universities has found that seed from dicamba-affected soybean plants is likely to show dicamba symptoms when planted the following growing season. Such negative impacts on progeny would spell disaster for the soybean-breeding program.

“If I’m a farmer raising beans to deliver to the elevator, I’m not worried about progeny impacts,” Haggard says. “But if I’m raising soybeans for seed to plant, and the progeny can be impacted negatively, then I am definitely worried about that.”

Plotting protections
As the new growing season approaches, concerns still abound regarding dicamba use and avoiding the issues that impacted some Missouri soybean producers in 2017.

There’s no question that those who used the system found it effective at controlling weeds, especially troublesome pigweed, so there is strong desire within the industry to maintain the technology. At the same time, until questions can be answered as to why off-target movement occurred, dicamba will continue to face increased scrutiny.

To help avoid a repeat of last season, the Missouri Department of Agriculture set state-specific restrictions on dicamba use in 2018. While herbicide formulations containing dicamba will be allowed, their use will be prohibited after June 1 in 10 southeast Missouri counties and after July 15 for the remainder of the state.
Some agricultural supply companies have announced internal policies that could be even more strict than the state’s guideline. For example, MFA Incorporated will not spray dicamba after soybean fields reach the R1 growth stage, even if it’s prior to the calendar cutoff dates.

The state agriculture department also instituted a new training requirement. Both certified private and commercial applicators applying synthetic auxin herbicides such as dicamba or 2,4-D in 2018 must complete mandatory training provided by University of Missouri Extension.

“We hope that the education and certification program that is to be required for applicators works like it should to help reduce the movement of any products,” says Jason Bean, a soybean producer from Peach Orchard, Mo., and chairman of the Fisher Delta Research Center’s Advisory Board.

Haggard says that at the research center, additional steps will be taken to protect the soybean-breeding blocks and the investment of soybean checkoff dollars. The first step is increased communication with neighbors.

“We’re going to be working more closely with the farmers and landowners who surround the two farms where we host the breeding blocks,” he explains. “We’re going to have in-person meetings to share more information about the breeding program.

“If there’s an assumption that our breeding program is of little benefit because we’re breeding conventional varieties, we want to share that the varieties being planted today with all these technology enhancements began with a conventional variety,” he continues. “Our program has released phenomenal lines that have been yield and revenue enhancers for Missouri soybean growers. We have a track record of producing lines that have been picked up by industry and crossed with traits that are in the field today.”

Jason Bean

As is becoming standard practice in the industry, the Fisher Delta Research Center will employ the “Flag the Technology” program created by the University of Arkansas. This will provide a visual signal to all passers-by, conspicuously marking plots that contain conventional soybean with multiple red triangular flags.

“Any applicator on any given day will have a visual reminder,” Haggard says. “Hopefully, it’ll get them to think, ‘Oh yeah, what I’m about to spray could potentially affect that field negatively.’”

The research center will also plant a series of conventional soybean sentinel plots along the peripheral boundaries of farms where breeding blocks are present. These sentinel plots will be planted over the course of six weeks.

“The staggered planting dates will give us different growth stages throughout the season,” Haggard explains. “We will check these plots daily and look for any visual symptoms. Not only will we be able to see if symptoms exist, but we’ll also be able to see if symptoms are more prevalent at different stages.”

Chen also is making changes to his research protocol to avoid the catastrophic loss that occurred in 2017. First, rather than planting breeding blocks on one date, he will stagger planting for six to eight weeks to avoid — or at least reduce — any potential impacts.

“I’m also reaching out to my collaborators at universities in other states and asking for their help to grow some of the advanced lines, the most important genetic materials,” Chen says. “The hope is they don’t have any issues so that I have some seeds left to continue on the research. We’re talking about survival.”

All these measures will add cost, but it’s an insurance policy required to ensure the viability of one of the most successful university soybean-breeding programs in the nation.

“We’re not just planting beans, we’re breeding beans,” Haggard says. “I’m trying to guard the long-term investment in this breeding program, both by the university and by the Missouri’s soybean producers through the soybean checkoff.

“At the same time, I’m also a family farm owner who planted dicamba-tolerant soybean in 2017 and benefitted from effective weed control. I understand the need for the technology. We have to figure out a way to coexist.”

Bean echoes those sentiments, noting that he, too, planted dicamba-tolerant soybean last year.

“We raised the best bean crop we’ve ever raised because of three factors: genetics, environment and weed control,” he says. “I am a supporter of new technology and being progressive. The Delta Center is a supporter of new technology and being progressive. Being progressive can equal profitability.

“We work hard to improve the profitability of farmers worldwide as well as here in the Bootheel. We want to support our farmers while also protecting their breeding program because it is the farmers’ breeding program,” Bean says.