It was 1963, and soybeans were a relatively new crop in the South. For two teenagers who were   accustomed to chopping cotton to “thin” the stands and remove weeds, the prospect of growing a crop that needed no hoeing was extremely appealing.

So my brother and I traded our hoes for a seat on a John Deere B and settled in to the relatively easy task of growing  soybeans on my grandfather’s farm in Arkansas.

Since then, I have watched the ebb and flow of the soybean’s fortunes with more than a passing interest. During those nearly 50 years, I’ve seen the crop go from being the darling of farmers everywhere to the bastard stepchild that no one really wanted to grow, then back to darling status again.

Driven by growing demand from China, soybeans have returned to favor with prices eclipsing levels those producers could only dream of in the 1980s when they had to take as little as $4 a bushel.

Are we then near the “Decade of the Bean,” as Monsanto’s Roy Fuchs likes to tell visitors to the company’s sprawling research complex in Chesterfield, Mo.

“I like to call this the ‘Decade of the Bean,’ because we expect to see a number of new traits in soybeans to reach the market,” says Fuchs, Monsanto oilseed technology leader. “It’s similar to corn traits in the previous decade.”

The returns from growing soybeans — and the relatively low cost of production for the crop — have created an excitement among soybean farmers and the companies that serve them.

“For years, a guy might grow 3,000 acres of soybeans and 800 acres of cotton, but he called himself a cotton farmer,” says a veteran Arkansas farmer. “Or he might grow 3,000 acres of beans and 500 acres of rice and call himself a rice producer. Now farmers are beginning to think of themselves as soybean farmers.”

The excitement is reflected in the rising yields that are being reported across the Sunbelt. Where farmers once were happy with 25 bushels per acre, many today are shooting for 50 bushels or 60 bushels an acre or more — and often hitting their target.

Some are questioning why they can’t grow 100 bushels following Missouri soybean producer Kip Cullers breaking his own world record by harvesting 160 bushels per acre.

Companies like Monsanto, which launched the original genetically modified soybean, are expanding their toolbox to include more traits.

“We have an even more robust group of traits for farmers and consumers in the pipeline, says Rob Joslin, Sydney, Ohio, farmer and chairman of the American Soybean Association.

“We’re continuing to see a situation in which many new traits are more valuable than the germplasm,” says Myron Stine, vice president of sales and marketing, Stine Seed. The pipeline should reward the farmer who values both traits and germplasm for yield, he says.

University trait releases, combined with resources of commercial breeders, are leading to further advances in soybean traits. Brian Diers, University of Illinois plant breeder, says more advanced genetic technology is enabling breeders and other researchers to produce better-yielding soybeans. “Our ability to sequence DNA has increased 50,000 times over the past 10 years,” he says.

In the weed control arena, Monsanto is aiming to release its much-anticipated dicamba-tolerant varieties in the next few years. They “will be stacked with the higher yield potential of Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield trait technology,” says Monsanto’s Roy Fuchs.

Dicamba-tolerant trait

The addition of the dicamba-tolerant trait to the Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield trait technology will add tolerance to two herbicides, with two different modes of action for new weed control options for many tough-to-control broadleaf weeds, he says.

The stack will enable dicamba and glyphosate herbicide use for preplant burndown with no plant-back restrictions at planting, and for in-season weed control. “This will complement the flexible and effective Roundup Ready and Roundup Ready Plus weed management systems that control hundreds of weeds,” Fuchs says.

Bayer CropSciences expects to release added LibertyLink herbicide traits in soybeans in about 2013.

With the need for more residual herbicides, Syngenta and Bayer are co-developing an HPPD herbicide-tolerant trait for soybeans, says Quinn Showalter, Syngenta commercial traits product leader.

“The trait is in early development, with launch in North America expected in the second half of this decade,” he says.“The HPPD trait will be an important new tool for increasing pressure from resistant and hard-to-control weeds.”

Two weed scientists explain the significance of this technology: “Any pending technology to utilize HPPD inhibitors in soybeans — which have been around in corn for some time — would provide another tool to control glyphosate-resistant horseweed, waterhemp and pigweed in soybeans,” says Purdue Weed Specialist Glenn Nice. “Dual resistance among some of these weeds is starting to dwindle our options in soybeans.”

Bryan Young, Southern Illinois University weed scientist, adds, “Some of the HPPD-inhibiting herbicides, such as Balance and Callisto, provide foliar and soil residual weed activity (in corn).  (If developed for soybeans) the addition of a herbicide with both foliar and soil activity would be a welcome addition to soybean production and the current use of glyphosate. Residual herbicides are a critical component in building a diverse, robust chemical weed-management strategy.

“The HPPD herbicides also have greater activity on broadleaf weeds than grass weeds. Since most of the glyphosate-resistant weeds that have developed are broadleaf species, this mode of action would likely complement glyphosate well,” Young says.

Dow AgroSciences will offer a new herbicide-tolerant trait technology called the Enlist Weed Control System. It will provide robust tolerance to a new 2,4-D product and will be stacked with the glyphosate-tolerant trait. Pending regulatory approvals, the trait will be available in soybeans for the 2015 crop year.

“The Enlist system will offer multiple modes of action against hard-to-control and resistant weeds, while allowing growers to continue to farm the way they prefer,” says Damon Palmer, Dow AgroSciences U.S. commercial leader. Enlist will provide growers a very effective tool, as they face a very real threat to productivity, he says.

Pioneer is also licensing the Enlist technology and incorporating it into Pioneer genetics. “Growers are losing a fair amount of yield to glyphosate-resistant and hard-to-control weeds,” says Pioneer’s Nick Iwig. “To offer a solution will bring a step change in value to growers.”

Disease control traits are also being developed to better arm growers with resistance to Asian soybean rust and other diseases that strike with a simple change in the way the wind blows.

Rust resistance is expected toward the end of the decade. Monsanto has several disease-resistant traits in its pipeline. Asian rust-resistant beans are in a later period of development; a new allele for SCN-resistant beans is in early development; and fungal-resistant soybeans are in early development, Fuchs says.

Showalter says Syngenta’s been launching new varieties featuring Peking SCN resistance since 2009. “Peking is an alternative to the widely used PI88788 gene,” he says, “and Syngenta is evaluating additional solutions to managing SCN, which could include seed treatments and new resistant sources for soybeans.”

Insect-resistant traits

Insect-resistant traits being developed include “a second-generation aphid-tolerance trait for improved control,” says Monsanto’s Fuchs. “This year, we introduced three soybean varieties with aphid tolerance in maturity Groups 1 and 2. They also contain our Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield trait technology.

“Aphid tolerance is conferred by the native Rag1 gene, discovered by soybean plant breeders at the University of Illinois. A comprehensive approach to insect management is recommended.”

Showalter says Syngenta’s Aphid Management System (AMS) “is the first fully integrated environmental stewardship approach to aphid management.” AMS includes an aphid-resistant trait, along with CruiserMaxx bean insecticide and fungicide seed treatment.

“Over the past three years AMS soybeans have demonstrated a 5.4 bushel yield advantage under severe aphid pressure,” he says. “Their sales are expected to double in 2012 as additional varieties are added to our portfolio.”

Iwig says Pioneer is working to deliver both aphid and SCN-resistant varieties.

University of Illinois’ Diers says Ohio State University and Michigan State University have also identified unique aphid-tolerance genes, and there are now four unique Rag genes identified that can be bred into varieties.

“We know there are aphid populations that can overcome the Rag1 gene,” Diers says. “This means that it’s important to develop varieties with other aphid-tolerance genes and combinations of genes to reduce losses caused by aphids.”

New health-oriented traits can open new markets for U.S. growers, believes ASA’s Joslin. “We’ve lost 4 billion pounds of soybean oil for human consumption due to the new trans-fat labeling. But new traits are coming that won’t require hydrogenation and will be even heart-healthier.”

Iwig says Pioneer’s Plenish high-oleic soybeans are ready for release in 2012. “The improved, healthier-oil profile allows food companies and industrial product manufacturers to bring improved products to the market that benefit the consumer and the environment.

“Plenish high oleic soybean oil offers a soy-based solution to the trans-fat challenge, with more than 75 percent oleic content and 20 percent less saturated fat than commodity soybean oil. The oil’s enhanced stability provides higher heat stability for frying, extended shelf life for manufactured products and great flexibility in applications.”

Monsanto will also launch two oil quality traits in the next two or three years. “One of these is Vistive Gold, which will provide a stable soybean oil for frying and baking applications, with no trans fats and the lowest saturated fat content of any vegetable oil,” Fuchs says.

“Also, we expect to bring stearidonic acid (SDA) omega 3 soybeans to the market. SDA soybean oil is a plant-based source of omega 3s that helps support heart health and can be incorporated into everyday foods.”

Yield?

But will they yield? That has been a big question through the years as growers have flocked to new traits companies have provided.

Drought has been a big yield factor this year. However, the genetic make up for drought tolerance in soybeans isn’t well understood, say researchers at the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology (NCSB) at the University of Missouri.

“We take a broad view of soybean development,” says Gary Stacey, NCSB associate director. “Our findings are probably a decade away from application.” He says measuring what impacts yield is difficult.

Despite arguments that corn yields have increased more than those for soybeans, University of Nebraska studies by Jim Specht show bean yields have held their own.

“We’ve looked at yield ratios from 1970 to now,” Stacey says. “If you look at the historical trend of corn vs. soybean yield, the ratio is consistent at around 3.25 to 1; hence, the rate of increase in soybeans has been parallel to corn. We want to identify which genes are contributing to those yields.”

For the most part, growers have access to the best seed ever, says Joslin. And the pipeline is flowing with new technology to better handle weed resistance, control disease and handle insects better and provide a healthier product for consumers.