Early planting changing soybeans

Alan Blaine was riding with a farmer to look at soybeans in a field in south Mississippi.

“I told him I thought he had some worms out there, and he sailed off that turnrow and down through that bottom he went,” said Blaine. “He drove about 500 to 600 yards out in the field and then turned around and came back.

“When he got back on the turnrow, he jumped out of the truck, went around to the front grill, looked at it and said, ‘Yeah, I got a few.’ I thought about that and, by golly, at least he checked.”

The story, which took place 15 to 20 years ago, got a good laugh from an audience of crop consultants accustomed to spending a lot of time in the field scouting cotton and rice but rarely soybeans. That may be about to change, however, as soybeans continue to shed their image as a stepchild crop.

Blaine, Extension soybean specialist in Mississippi, was speaking at a workshop on “Soybean Consulting in 2005: New Challenges, New Opportunities” in Tunica, Miss. The meeting, sponsored by the Mississippi Agricultural Consultants Association, attracted consultants from all of the Mid-South states and Alabama.

“The coming growing season will bring with it many new challenges, the most obvious being the task of finding and managing Asian soybean rust in our southern soybean fields,” Gerald Daniel, MACA president, told the consultants.

“The MACA board of directors believed that this challenge was also an opportunity to advance the profession of independent crop consulting on soybeans in the South.”

Blaine didn't have to tell the consultants that soybeans have not always been seen in the same light as cotton and rice. Low yields and low prices in the late 1980s and 1990s often relegated soybeans to the status of a secondary crop.

But that perception has been changing slowly as farmers learned they could increase yields by planting earlier maturing varieties early — and by getting into fields to see what was happening to the plants.

Then came last year's higher prices and the so-called “August premium” that growers could receive by harvesting their soybeans in August. That helped accelerate the move to early planting that some growers had already been participating in.

“Higher yields have been the driving force behind this trend,” said Blaine, who joined the Mississippi Extension Service in 1987. “When you look at some of the yields we were dealing with in the 1980s, many growers had nothing to lose by trying something different.”

Since Mississippi growers began switching to early-planted soybeans in 1992, yields have been on a steady uptrend. Non-irrigated fields enrolled in the Soybean Management by Application of Research and Technology (SMART) program that Blaine oversees have averaged more than 40 bushels per acre with early planting of early-maturing varieties in the last 13 years.

“Early planting and planting early-maturing soybeans are the biggest shots in the arm for soybean yields that we've ever seen,” he said. “I think it has a fit for growers all across the South and up the East Coast.”

Early planting isn't new, he said, noting that researchers were experimenting with planting indeterminant, early-maturing varieties in south Texas 25 years ago. “They had a lot of success, but it just took a while for it to move this way.”

Some of the Texas researchers moved to Arkansas and carried the practice with them. And Larry Heatherly, agronomist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Soybean Product Research Unit at Stoneville, Miss., spent 14 years fine-tuning the practice for Mid-South growers.

In 2004, Mississippi growers planted 70 percent of their acreage in Group 4 early-maturing varieties, with many of those going in the ground in March to try to collect the August premium.

“Our growers have pushed the envelope on planting dates in the last two or three years,” said Blaine. “In those last three years, growers in our state have planted soybeans between March 7 and March 12. I think that's a little early, but we've had growers do that successfully.”

Although intermittent rains kept farmers out of fields much of the March, growers had planted some Group 4s in the Delta when Blaine spoke in Tunica on March 24. Blaine said he wouldn't give up on Group 4s just yet.

“I've had growers say they bought Group 4s, they need to get them planted, what should they do?” he said. “You should keep planting them. If you plant a Group 4 variety later, it's going to act like a Group 5. You're going to shift the maturity on them.

“If you don't believe me, plant a variety on March 25, plant the same variety on April 25 and again on May 25. You'll have one variety, but three different animals because they will all react differently because of the planting dates.”

One of the keys to making early planting work, he said, is to take care of land preparation in the fall and use tillage or an early burndown program in the spring to kill winter vegetation. “Earlier planting will allow fields to dry out and warm back up,” he said.

He also believes farmers face reductions in yields if they don't have their soybeans planted by May 25. “I would prefer to see us finish by May 10, but I know there are extenuating circumstances when you're planting soybeans. When we're trying to maximize soybean yields, we need to push toward earlier planting.”

Mississippi State specialists also recommend that growers plant seed treated with a broad-spectrum fungicide to protect seedlings against diseases in early spring. “We're trying to encourage most of our growers to plant early,” says Blaine. “And we know what causes most soybean farmers to lose their stand when they do that — Pythium.”

For that reason, Blaine believes growers should apply a Pythium-based seed treatment program containing Apron or Allegiance. “We think you need a broad spectrum program and that could be Apron or Allegiance combined with Vitavax or Maxxum, and now Quadris is on the scene.”

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