On September 13, southeast Arkansas farmer Matt Miles harvested a record-smashing 107.63-bushel soybean field.
Miles, a gentle giant of a man, is willing to talk about the growing season but only after repeatedly explaining the accomplishment in terms of family ties and the benefits of surrounding oneself with good people.
“Look, man, the record is awesome! But in the end what really matters is the whole crew that did this, the history we have and the memories we’ve made,” he says at his dining room table, wife Sherrie Kay at his elbow. “My co-workers are very instrumental in this operation. I’d put them up against any crew in the world.
“And, honestly, without similar weather to this year, I feel that 100 bushels will be hard to hit again. We may go 10 years without seeing 100 bushels again.
“We can still make consistently good yields, though. Our average yield here was at 68 bushels. The four-year average is around 70 bushels. Then, all of the sudden, we pop up with these big yield bumps.”
Three houses once stood on an especially productive 47-acre pie-shaped wedge of silt loam outside McGehee, Ark. Sherrie Kay’s great-grandfather bought the land in the 1920s and her father was born and raised there.
Years later, Matt and Sherrie Kay bought that field and eventually grew 107-bushel beans on it. The couple is equally responsible for the operation’s success. “She is just as big a part of the farming operation as I am,” says Matt. “She doesn’t get as dirty – although she will shovel a polypipe line -- but the office is run meticulously. She can tell you how many bolts we bought in a given year. She keeps everything humming, makes sure everything is in line.
“We farm 6,300 acres – half in McGehee and half in Boydell in Ashley County,” says Matt. “This year, we have 3,300 acres of corn and 2,500 acres of soybeans. We also have 230 acres of cotton and the balance is in wheat and beans.”
Miles – who also farms with his son, Layne, and consultant, Robb Dedman -- didn’t have any trouble planting crops this spring. “The early temperatures weren’t what we wanted but I guess it didn’t hurt much – maybe it helped things considering the yields we’ve had. Our corn yield was just a bit less than last year’s average but, otherwise, our 2013 yields have been better than they’ve ever been.”
Did he plan to enter the yield contest with this field from the get-go?
“We did. Last year, we entered the contest with a different field. We threw the kitchen sink at it, tried every product we could think of.”
Dedman says during the growing season Miles is extremely driven and focused. Miles admits that those traits make the process of harvesting a contest field difficult. “I’m not big on stopping during harvest. For me to stop a combine, it has to be broke down. Efficiency is everything to us and I want to keep going until the job is done. I don’t want any delays – going through hurricane weather will make you that way.
“By entering the contest, I didn’t realize that it would mean a special harvest with a bunch of judges watching and whatnot. I learned real quick that we had to stop, clean up the combine, had to have a clean trailer and all the rest.”
In 2012, an hour into contest process, Miles was going a bit stir-crazy. “We still hadn’t cut the first row. I’m itching to get going because, across the field, I could see another combine getting closer to the test plot. I knew what the yield was on those beans – ‘well, this contest field won’t be 100 bushels.’ In the end, they made a bushel less than the beans that weren’t in the contest. We didn’t even get close to 100 bushels.”
After so many years working the same land, a farmer gets a feel for what each field is going to yield, says Miles. “If X field cuts 70 bushels, you can be pretty sure that Y field will cut 78 bushels and Z field will cut 85.
“After 2012, I told Robb, ‘Man, I don’t know if I want to do this (in 2013).’ Robb said, ‘We can do this! We can do it!’ I said, ‘Well, we’ll consider it on two specific fields.’”
They went with the old family land, in corn a year earlier.
“I just had a feeling,” says Miles. “That field is irrigated with polypipe – we’ve got a 50-horsepower submersible and a 30-horsepower submersible, so there’s ample water.”
Dedman’s contributions proved extremely valuable, says Miles. “If it was up to me, I’d have configured the contest plot a little different than Robb did. And if I had, I’d have made less yield. I wanted to go deeper into the field. Two years ago, the field was in soybeans and the lower end cut in the 100s and the upper end cut in the 80s. When we decided to put it in the yield contest, I wanted to use the poorer ground.
“But this year, the field’s better-yielding area flip-flopped. I think it had something to do with irrigation but, regardless, we used the top half of the field.”
The record crop was grown with a Group 4, Asgrow 4632, and a plant population between 145,000 and 150,000.
Miles admits to still feeling like a novice when it comes to soybeans. “We haven’t been trying to farm high-yielding soybeans but for four or five years. Used to be, if we could get 40- or 50-bushel soybeans, we thought that was a homerun because it was on 25 acres of poor land.”
That changed when his cotton ground opened up. “In the last few years, we’ve been growing soybeans like we would a cotton crop. We’re putting a lot more money per acre in them and that’s really boosted yields.”
At the same time, “Robb is very innovative and always wants to try new things. He encouraged me to step out of the box and try something new.”
Miles tried a variety similar to Asgrow 4632 three years ago. It was free seed but it ended up costing him about $15,000 in yield. “So, I actually lost $5,000 to use the seed. That’s what can happen, even if you’re careful.
“I’m a big believer in studying university trials as the basis for seed selection. I’ll sit for a day in the winter, picking out varieties of corn and beans. Robb brings in his list and we compare. Lots of times we’ve picked the same varieties.”
The men insist they didn’t do anything “too special” on the contest field. Dedman says what sets Miles apart is, “his efficiency and his ability to be timely. He is on the ball. I can call him and say ‘we need to do this’ and he’ll be chasing me out of the field to get it done.
“So, underneath we went with Verdict and came back with Prefix. Of course, we used Roundup. The beans were also sprayed with Priaxor, a fungicide. They were treated for insects only once – Orthene.”
Chicken litter has also been applied to Miles’ land – about 9,000 tons annually. The litter is hard to get, but one of his best friends, Mike McGregor, helped him get together with some chicken farmers and now Mike hauls and applies all Matt's litter.
The beans ended up tall and bushy – around chest-high.
“They had a good lean on them after a couple of strong winds came through,” says Dedman. “The stalks were just loaded.”
Early on, though, the Group 4s didn’t look very promising.
BASF’s Brad Koen – who, coincidentally, also worked with the first Arkansas 100-bushel buster, Nelson Crow, just up the road -- has been Miles’ good friend for a long time. “We went to school together. He talked me into using Verdict. I trust him very much – he’s top-notch. The price was right and we needed something for pigweed control.”
But about three weeks after application, Miles was calling Dedman and Koen griping. “I was burning the phone lines up. The beans had stunted and looked like they were going to die – a train wreck. Well, it turned out that was just due to the cold temperatures. Others were running into the same problems with all sorts of chemistries.”
Then, around the R1 stage, things turned around and the crop took off.
“Honestly, we didn’t do much different than normal,” says Miles. “I attribute the majority of this 100-bushel yield to the Good Lord. The nighttime temperatures made the yield.
“I’m not big on snake oil. If you have the right crew, good, conscientious people working with you – from my family to Robb to (Desha County Extension chair) Wes Kirkpatrick and all the other folks that help us – and the weather cooperates, the yields will come.”
The Group 4s were blooming before they really began growing, says Dedman. “The cold had sat down on them. Once the temperatures warmed up, we stuck every bloom. The pod-load was unreal.
“We all go to meetings and listen for tips. What is Kip Cullers doing? Well, I’m convinced a big part of it is where he’s located. The temperatures they experience in southwest Missouri allows the beans to respire at night. This year, we had a similar situation here.
“And, again, I point to Matt’s insistence on being timely. Those contest beans never wanted for anything. Fertility wasn’t an issue. Weed control wasn’t an issue. Irrigation wasn’t an issue.”
Three combines were in the 47-acre field when it was time to harvest. The Miles also run a trucking company, so there was a whirlwind of activity going on at the same time.
“We’re sitting at the field waiting for Robb and Wes to arrive,” recalls Miles. “After 2012, I already knew what it was going to be like. I was saying to myself, ‘Be patient. Allot the time because this field looks so good.’ It was hard, though.
“Robb got there and was bouncing around, all excited, ready to find out if we’d done it. Wes figured out to get 100 bushels, we needed almost two hopper loads. I was under a shade tree watching things develop. They got the first hopper and I called Robb and asked if the combine was over halfway. He said, ‘We aren’t close to halfway.’”
At that point, says Kirkpatrick, “We were pretty sure Matt had done it.”
With a second hopper filled and dumped, the field still wasn’t harvested.
“That’s when my heart started racing, when I really allowed myself to get excited,” says Miles. “I had to keep harvesting, so Robb and Wes went with the truck. But the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t stand it. I called Billy, my farm manager, and told him to drive to the elevator and wait. I said, ‘you call me when it’s official.’”
The record still wasn’t a done deal, though.
“Because of high moisture, they had to clean out and that took an hour-and-a-half,” says Kirkpatrick. “That high moisture made me a little nervous because we had to correct it to 13 percent. We lost 6 percent of the total weight because of that.
“But it wasn’t even close. We needed around 524 bushels and ended up with over 600. That meant 107.63 bushels per acre.”
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Word got out while they waited. “People started coming in to have a peek,” says Dedman. “Other folks were calling wanting to know if we’d done it.”
Kirkpatrick says seed companies must get credit for providing good genetics. Dedman agrees: “The whole contest process is a race for everyone. Everyone takes pride in it – the consultants, the farmers, the input companies, the seed companies, everyone.”
“And we have the best farmers in the world here in the Delta,” says Kirkpatrick. “We have excellent soils. Desha County is where three major rivers come together. Eons ago, this area was regularly flooded and soil was deposited. We have very good sandy loams. This year, everything just came together.”