A review of Corn+Soybean Digest’s “9 Basics for Top Soybean Yields” article published on December 8, 2014. In the article, Susan Winsor of the Digest talks with three rising stars in soybean production—graduate students Adam Gaspar, Ethan Smidt and David Marburger, who collectively make up the Bean Team at the University of Wisconsin. Their super mission was topping 87 bushels per acre by using nine basic agriculture techniques. In this article, we’ll explore my take on the accomplishment of these young men.
One of my first observations is that the young farmers focus on costs, but not just the price—the price compared to the results. That focus sets them apart because many growers think they can buy their way to high-end soybean yields by using special fungicides, insecticides or fuller feeding products. After using those products on their soybeans, they are often frustrated with the lack of return on investment (ROI). What these graduate students achieved shows us how important the basics of farming are. Eighty-seven bushels per acre do not lie.
Narrow Rows—Higher Yields
One of the key factors for their success comes from a practice we teach in our Yield 365 class—knowing how to use the right genetics on the right acreage. You cannot treat every plot of land the same. What works in one area may or may not work in another. These guys examine the land and try to understand it. They made the educated choice to plant narrower rows based on north or south latitudes. They found that by planting early and using narrow rows, the yield increased because these factors took advantage of available sunlight. That plan was found to work better with 15-inch rows and normal inputs than with 30-inch rows and all the inputs. Not only did this work to increase yield, but it also cost less than using 30-inch rows and paying for all those inputs. Even if you split the difference, you find that split-row planters, 20-inch rows become tools to help maximize the uniformity of stand and allow ground coverage to eliminate weed competition.
Understanding Crop Needs and Soil Health
The Bean Team began with soil fertility as an issue—soybeans are high potassium and high nitrate and nitrogen consumers. So, making sure growers are feeding that crop the proper amount of potassium going into the growing season is key. The practice of crop rotation plays an important role in the success of this project too. Monitoring K and P levels are critical. In their fields, the team aimed for levels of P above 25 ppm and K above 140 ppm. What they also found is that micronutrients offered poor ROI on their land, but micronutrients are best used where soil fertility is extremely poor.
Many growers tend to overlook fertilizing for soybean yields. Instead, they use that as an off-year amendment by using the soybean to reside as a base to fertilize for the following year’s corn crop. However, ensuring they have adequate levels of potassium or applying potash to those fields going into soybeans is very important. The lesson here is about knowing the levels, rather than just applying a fix. You can apply a fix and still not have great results, but when you know the values, you ensure crop success.
Soybean Cyst Nematodes
The Bean Team brings up an important fact—the rotation of crops in conjunction with the rotation of genetic resistance. Sean notes that managing soybean cyst nematodes (SCN) continue to be an issue. Many new products on the market help to eliminate or alleviate some of the pressure that SCN place on the soybean seedlings. SCN are considered to be the number-one yield-robbing pest for soybeans, much like corn rootworms are for corn. So, anything that we can do to help manage SCN outside of just using good, high-yielding, cyst-tolerant varieties is going to be an improvement. Good SCN management usually means higher yields.
Post Emergent Weed Control Is Key
The Bean Team used a five-pronged approach to weed control with an overall cost of about $35 per acre. The biggest consideration of many growers is their herbicide program. The goal is to make sure that we are eliminating the early-season competition and using a good foundation herbicide with a couple different modes of action that help yield. Taking off some of that pressure from farmers so as not to be reliant on the glyphosate molecule to control weeds is important. As we look at water hemp, Palmer amaranth and additional issues coming around, a multimode plan benefits the development of a good building block or a good, clean foundation to achieve top-end soybean yields.
Pros and Cons of Insecticides and Fungicides
Insecticides, I’m sorry to say, will probably be scrutinized. The neonicotinoids that we have typically used are coming under attack right now because of their negative impact on honeybees and nontarget pests. We need to ensure that we have an option for protecting against those seed-feeding insects.
Fungicides too have been linked to problems associated with honeybees. They are important for early-sowing crop survival to minimize the effects of Pythium and other blights that affect seedlings.
The last key point that I’d like to make is that soybean yield will change based on the environment’s impact on the land. Knowing the history of each field becomes paramount because the grower will want to weigh options that offset such variable changes to the land.
Using these basic steps does not mean that growers are going to see triple-digit soybean yields. The goal, however, should not be to hit triple digits, but instead to improve your crop yield by 10 percent. Those little gains add profit to the bottom line, and if you follow along with the Bean Team's methods, you are adding to your bottom line without the significant cost of top-shelf inputs.