SMART farmers improve bottom line

By May 14 of this year, 85 percent of Mississippi soybeans had been planted, the highest percent for that date in the state's history.

Mississippi Extension soybean specialist Alan Blaine said one reason is the early planting research work by USDA/ARS scientist Larry Heatherly and others. But it's also the result of moving the early planting concept into the SMART program (Soybean Management by Application of Research and Technology).

“You move into a community and do something that works, it spreads by word of mouth,” Blaine said. “Coffee shop talk gets around faster than a research bulletin.”

The SMART program was initiated in 1992 as a way to put research information and technologies to work in growers' fields. It is funded 100 percent by grower checkoff funds from the Mississippi Soybean Promotion Board.

Farmers enroll in SMART for two years and commit to doing the recommended practices on at least one field. “It's an all-encompassing program from start to finish,” Blaine said. “We like to be involved in tillage decisions, soil fertility all the way through harvest.”

This year, 43 growers and 43 fields are enrolled in SMART. Over 183 fields have been a part of SMART since 1992.

“They put a lot of emphasis on the economic factors of farming,” said soybean producer David Wansley, who has 120 irrigated acres enrolled in SMART.

“They're looking after the farmer's best interests — to try to get the top yields and a clean crop using the least amount of inputs. That's exactly what we have to have these days.”

Wansley, who farms 350 acres of soybeans in Warren County, Miss., and runs a grain elevator in Valley Park, Miss., found out about the program through Terry Rector, his county agent. He is in his second year of SMART, long enough to see some big improvements in his bottom line.

“Early planting has been one of the most important things that Alan stresses. Another is the early burndown. Keep the fields clean, get in there with an early burndown and plant early. Those have been the keys to improving my yield.”

The program is administered by Blaine, USDA/ARS ag engineer Jim Thomas, plant pathologist Billy Moore, entomologist Jim Hamer and two graduate students. “We have teams of agronomists, entomologists, ag engineers, county agents, Extension, research, growers,” Blaine said. “It's not just one person making a decision. It's a group decision.”

Once a week, a member of the SMART team, accompanied by a county agent, visits each field in the program. County agents will make a second trip during the week on irrigated fields.

“We keep records on every field in the SMART program, everything that's performed,” Blaine said, “and we do a complete economic analysis in the fall. We put that data in table form to see how they stack up to the other program participants.”

The program is growing in demand, noted Blaine. “We have yet to go out and solicit a single participant. They have all come to us. We have a waiting list right now of over two years.”

In nine years of the SMART program, several common factors stand out for improved producer profitability, according to Blaine.

“Number one is variety selection. I think our growers today are doing a much better job of picking a variety than they did 10 years ago.”

Blaine says picking a variety that best suits a farm's needs is important. But yield still is and always will be the number one criteria. “Look in the top 10 percent in the yield trials. Look for a top performer over a three- or four-state area. It's not that hard. I think we might have planted six varieties in every field in the entire SMART program.”

Another key is to plant early. “You don't need to be plowing in April, you need to be planting,” the specialist said. “We have really pushed this in both dryland and irrigated, but more so dryland.”

If you do plant early, use a seed treatment, Blaine stresses. “If you have to replant, you can get all the free seed you can haul in a truck and it will not make up for the difference in yield from getting a stand the first time. Plus you're going to have to go with a secondary varietal choice, because the best ones are already used up.”

Irrigation scheduling is also crucial, according to Blaine. Common irrigation mistakes include not starting on time, getting too far apart on waterings and quitting too soon. “Right now, we have an early crop, 15 to 20 days earlier than it normally is. What does that tell me? That folks are going to have to start irrigating 15 to 20 days earlier if it doesn't rain.”

Timeliness in other applications is important, too, according to Wansley. “Dr. Moore and Dr. Hamer keep a tight rein on the insect thresholds, where they think you're about to get in trouble. As a farmer, I tend to hold off and if it doesn't get better in a week, then do something. But they stay on top of it. It goes back to the timeliness. They taught me that you can sustain some damage to your yield if you wait too long.”

Another objective of SMART is to implement and refine new ideas and technologies. One emerging management tool is Dimilin for worm control. “We really like what we see with Dimilin,” Blaine said. “A lot of people will disagree. They just don't see the yield response. But if you're looking at it on small plots on the experiment station, you don't have enough variability (to get a good evaluation).

“I've had fields where I put Dimilin out and I haven't sprayed for worms. Two ounces of Dimilin cost you about $2.20. That beats the heck out of making a $7 to $10 worm application.

“A lot of growers in the south Delta would be doing themselves a big favor if they put out 2 ounces of Dimilin at the right time, especially if they aren't going to go look for worms. They'd be way ahead of the game, instead of letting worms eat them up.”

“I'm impressed with the information I've gotten and some of the things I've learned,” Wansley added. “They changed some of my viewpoints on irrigation as far as timeliness is concerned. Since I've been on the program I've seen the difference.

“I'm also using less diesel fuel,” the producer said. “I do most of my tillage in the fall and then in the spring I do a good clean chemical burndown. This year, we used a little residual material, Goal, along with our Roundup. It's worked really well. It looks like I'm only going to have make one application of Roundup. It's saving me some money there.”

SMART does not necessarily aim for high yields, according to Blaine. “We're looking for improvements in the bottom line. If a certain herbicide or insecticide application is not going to make us money, we'll look real hard at not making it. We're just trying to put a total package together.”

e-mail: [email protected]

SMART lessons learned produce higher yields

By Elton Robinson
Farm Press Editorial Staff

THE SMART program is not the answer to all soybean production problems, rather it's a tool that shortens the time it takes for new technologies and research information to reach a grower's field.

There's little doubt that these innovations work. Historically, the SMART program average yield has outperformed state average soybean yields by almost 20 bushels. Dryland yields have averaged 34 bushels an acre and irrigated yields have averaged 49.3 bushels per acre since the beginning of the program.

However, to emphasize the importance of timeliness, if the program eliminated those participating fields that did not implement practices in a timely manner, dryland yields average over 40 bushels an acre and irrigated yields averaged over 56 bushels per acre.

Program participation is not restricted by field size or a grower's management practices. Producers are enrolled in the program for a two-year period. They are asked to follow program recommendations in a timely manner and all recommendations are discussed and agreed to by the cooperators and program personnel before implementation.

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