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Monsanto Focuses on Systems Optimization to Drive Yield Increases

By leveraging departmental cooperation, Monsanto hopes to bring yields to a new level in its push to feed the world.

Published on: May 15, 2013

When Monsanto hosted Media Days two years ago, the crop biotechnology giant discussed the product pipeline in great detail.

This year, the focus was less product-oriented and more on how Monsanto is approaching increased yield from a systems perspective. This is evidenced in how Bob Reiter, vice president of global biotechnology, and Sam Eathington, vice president of global plant breeding, discuss their respective departments.

Reiter explains further yield advancements were made with the second generation Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans over the first by inserting the Roundup Ready gene in a more desirable location. Reiter explains finding the best place to insert a gene along with the best germplasm is now a core strategy in all of Monsanto's new products.

GLOBAL EMPHASIS: Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant discusses the direction of the company. The company sees significant growth opportunity in global agriculture markets.
GLOBAL EMPHASIS: Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant discusses the direction of the company. The company sees significant growth opportunity in global agriculture markets.

Technology integration

Of course, one of the newest examples of systems optimization is Monsanto's newly-formed Integrated Farming Systems department. Led by Pam Strifler, IFS garnered quite a bit of buzz with the introduction of FieldScripts technology at last year's Farm Progress Show.

Using Monsanto's extensive breeding and testing data, the company will write "prescriptions" for individual fields. The FieldScript will optimize hybrid choices and planting population rates based on soil type and other factors.

Strifler notes it will be sold as an add-on to Dekalb-brand seed corn. This year, 150 farmers are testing the technology on 35,000 acres.

Once the FieldScript is paid for, the farmer receives the script on an iPad, which integrates with Precision Planting (now a Monsanto subsidiary based out of Tremont, Ill.) hardware in the tractor cab. Currently, a FieldScript presents the farmer with several optimized hybrid choices. The Precision Planting hardware will vary plant populations across the field.

From three years of testing data, chief technology officer Robb Fraley says FieldScripts has consistently returned 5 to 10 bushels of added corn yield.

New venture

Monsanto executives discussed another new venture for the company – ag biologicals and microbials. Steve Padgette, vice president of research and development investment strategy, says ag biologicals is a $1.5 to $1.7 billion per year industry, centered primarily on crop protection within the fruits and vegetable industry.

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Padgette notes Monsanto's initial strategy is two pronged. The Biodirect department will work to incorporate biologicals to bolster weed and insect control, enhance herbicide effectiveness, and control crop viruses.

The company's foray into microbials will utilize microbes, especially in the crop's root system, to enhance yields. For instance, Padgette says researchers are working to boost nitrogen fixation in soybean plants.

Though details are scarce, Padgette hopes to have a new product on the market from this foray by the end of the decade.

"We're really surfing the wave of this new technology," he adds.

Global focus

One thing was crystal clear from this year's Media Days, Monsanto has not strayed from its mission to feed the world.

During the opening address, Brett Begemann, president and chief commercial officer, rehashed the population growth numbers: 9 billion people by 2050, another 900 million in the next two years, and an exploding middle class in China and India.

Last fiscal year, more than half of Monsanto's growth came from markets outside of the U.S. Begemann expects this trend to continue.

CEO and chairman Hugh Grant notes the "small-holder" agriculture segment has tremendous interest in Monsanto's products. In India, 1 to 1.5 acre farms are common. Using Monsanto products, these farmers have been able to reduce the number of times they spray a cotton field from 10-12 trips to 2-3.

"These (farm families) talk about finishing earlier and cooking a meal before dark," Grant notes.