Going Generic

Patent-Less RR1 Beans Hit the Market

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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A generic Roundup Ready 1 variety produced by the University of Arkansas is selling well across the Midwest and South. (DTN photo by Jim Patrico)

ST. LOUIS (DTN) -- A handful of seed dealers in Arkansas have taken a big step back in time.

They offered the first publically available generic Roundup Ready 1 (RR1) soybeans to farmers in 2015, with the full knowledge that their customers might not return in 2016.

"For the first time in a long time, people can save soybeans and plant them themselves," said Robert Petrus, president of Petrus Seed & Grain Co. in Haven, Arkansas. His company sold 5,000 units of the University of Arkansas variety, UA 5414 RR, the first generic RR1 bean on the market.

Monsanto's patent for RR1 beans expired in 2014, but that doesn't mean all RR1 beans can be saved. Only seed released without any additional variety patents will be available to be planted and saved for seed.

Sales of generic RR1 beans are not likely to take over the marketplace in the near future, said University of Arkansas agronomist Jeremy Ross. However, they are well suited for many growers who are looking to cut costs or have marginal lands where expensive racehorse varieties don't pay off, he said. "On any given year, from 3.2 billion soybean acres, probably less than 10% will go to some of these varieties," he predicted.

Monsanto has been trying to phase RR1 beans out of the marketplace with its Roundup Ready 2 (RR2) soybean lines. But stagnant commodity prices have made the older beans, now free of licensing fees, newly attractive to farmers ready to cut some costs.

"We sold those beans all the way up to Nebraska, over to the southeast corner of Kansas, sold some in Missouri, South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas," Petrus said of UA 5414 RR. "People are ready for cheaper beans."

UA 5414 RR was developed by Pengyin Chen, a University of Arkansas soybean breeder who has been working with RR1 germplasm since 2002. The variety has received "tremendous interest" and the university sold 2,425 units in 2015 to Arkansas farmers and a few local seed dealers, who sold out quickly, he said. This year, the university breeders have orders to distribute 3,391 units to farmers and dealers, who have been busy building up their own supplies of the beans. Petrus Seed & Grain Co. grew 8,000 units to add to what they get from the university, Petrus said.

Chen is busy working on releasing a second variety of RR1 soybeans for spring 2016. Seed sales will start in February if the release is approved by the university, he said. "We will have limited seed to offer but will probably sell everything we have."

Arkansas isn't alone -- breeders at the Universities of Missouri, Georgia, and Tennessee are also hard at work developing generic RR1 soybean lines for commercial use, Chen said.

COST SAVINGS

The generic RR1 beans trim costs at both the front and back end of soybean production, Ross noted. While RR2 soybeans can range in price from $65 to $70 a bag, Petrus sells UA 5414 RR for $34. And once the crop is harvested, growers can reserve seed, clean it, and plant it again.

However, UA 5414 RR did show a slight yield drag compared to RR2 beans, ranging from 2 to 5 bushels, Chen said. "If you can live with that, you can use this technology," he said. "It's especially good for marginal land where they won't get a lot of yield no matter what variety they use."

Petrus said the beans yielded from 58 to 73 bushels per acre depending on the type of ground and water available.

Chen's second variety scheduled for release in 2016 shows a 2-bushel advantage over UA 5414 RR.

There are costs to stored seed, Monsanto points out on www.soybeans.com, its website dedicated to post-patent RR1 information. Storing generic beans at the right moisture and temperature will eat into savings, as will adding soybean treatments, cleaning costs, and the yield drag associated with stored seed.

THE FUTURE OF GENERIC RR1

Monsanto has agreed to maintain the international registrations for RR1 soybeans only until 2021, which gives the generic varieties an apparent expiration date. The spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds might eventually make the trait obsolete for some farmers, Ross added.

Chen is optimistic that RR1 can survive the loss of international registrations.

"China has been our largest customer of these soybeans for decades," he said. "Unless it is something political we cannot control, why not buy the seed you've been buying for 20 years?"

As for herbicide resistance, "we're a little smarter now," he added. "We know we need to rotate traits and varieties. Roundup Ready 1 can remain part of the rotation."

The drive for higher-yielding varieties and the resources of large seed companies like Monsanto might ultimately be the death knell for RR1, however, Ross said.

"Our breeding budget is a drop in the bucket compared to these big seed companies," he said of the university breeding program. "My guess is by 2021, there will be something much better out, and Roundup Ready 1 varieties will have been pushed out by other traits."

But for now, the generic RR1 beans are a good bet for cost-conscious farmers, he added.

"I would absolutely recommend it as a way to cut costs right now," he said. "Roundup is still an excellent tool for soybeans."

You can find the Arkansas seed dealers that sell the university's generic RR1 varieties here: http://bit.ly/….

To check if a RR1 soybean is legal to save and replant, use Monsanto's "decision tree" here: http://soybeans.com/….

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

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Emily Unglesbee