Insight •  2024-04-08

A look at Corteva’s farmer-focused soybean breeding program

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soybean research team

When a farmer opens a bag of Corteva Agriscience soybean seed, they are unleashing the results of the most advanced research and technology with the highest yield potential.

The Research and Development teams at Corteva follow a rigorous, advanced, and thorough process that relies on a combination of science, genetics, and expertise to deliver superior soybean varieties year after year.

Evelyn Valera is a research scientist and soybean plant breeder at the Corteva soybean research centre in Tavistock, Ont. She leads the soybean plant breeding program for Eastern Canada, developing varieties specifically for maturity groups 0 and 1. Valera has a PhD in Plant Genetics around sclerotinia, or white mould, research and leads the white mould characterization efforts for Corteva North America.

“Our focus has always been on breeding high performing soybean lines with agronomics to deliver performance that will help farmers realize the genetic and yield potential of their crops,” says Valera who is currently focused on breeding agronomic traits to address common yield-limiting diseases in Eastern Canada, like soybean cyst nematode (SCN), white mould and phytophthora root rot. Harvest standability is another soybean agronomic trait her team is also working on to help farmers capture yield.

Agronomic excellence

When it comes to helping farmers manage diseases, soybean varieties have come a long way. Especially in southwestern Ontario, where farmers have been dealing with SCN for years. Corteva has been diligently developing lines through genetic selection, screening and population development that provide SCN resistance. “We’re proud of our work, helping farmers manage their fields, grow and realize their best crops,” says Valera. What farmers may not know is that it takes hundreds of genes to achieve the desired SCN disease tolerance and breeding for other diseases, like white mould are even more difficult.

“White mould is a challenging disease, but we are making progress by continuously screening lines to develop tolerant varieties,” says Valera. Helping farmers manage white mould through agronomics in their soybean seed traits is a top priority for the team. She explains that this soybean disease is one of the most concerning for growers in Eastern Canada, especially after the 2023 growing season that saw higher disease pressure. According to Valera white mould is a very complex disease when it comes to selecting and breeding for tolerance, but she says they’re making progress.

Data-driven decisions

It takes an average of six years to develop a new soybean variety – from making the initial cross through to commercialization. Valera explains that her work starts by planning crosses with elite lines to create new trait combinations and growing these new combinations for initial evaluation and further selection. Combining expertise knowledge with the latest technologies, like genome wide sequencing and phenotypic information, assists the plant breeding team and helps speed up the development process.

“We start with thousands of breeding lines and narrow them down to a few that will perform,” says Valera. The beginning of the plant breeding process requires extensive experiments and testing. At this stage, the team relies heavily on genetic information and research to help inform the decisions. According to Valera, genome sequencing can streamline the variety selection process, helping her predict how a line will perform based on the existing genetic information. As the selection process moves further along the research and production funnel by narrowing down varieties, phenotypic information is used in field trials to assist with selection decisions. “The genotypic data helps to back up the decisions made in the field trials, especially when weather conditions add variables to the research,” explains Valera.

Eventually, the selected varieties are grown in pre-commercialization field trials where further testing and research is performed to narrow the soybean development funnel even further.

Field trial research and data collection has evolved to include enhanced drone and remote sensing technology that helps the research team collect information on plant development, maturity, disease detection and more. Valera says the camera drones not only reduce labour but improve accuracy by reducing human error or interpretation. “Having precise, high-quality data helps us make accurate decisions that, at the end of the day, enable us to apply every tool available to help our farming customers achieve their desired crop potential,” she says.

Expect only the best

Breeding high performing soybean lines that will deliver the greatest yield potential is the highest priority for Corteva’s research scientists. Valera and her team are just the first step in a rigorous process to develop and deliver new soybean traits and varieties.

“We’re always working ahead, preparing soybean varieties that meet the needs of our farmers, the changing agronomic and environmental pressures that the plants are grown in, and ultimately, breeding the highest performing lines that deliver excellence in fields across Eastern Canada,” says Valera.