Growing soybeans behind rice takes sweat, heavy chains and a dogged commitment to get across the field.
That becomes increasingly obvious with every photo that Mississippi producer Jeremy Jack flashes on the screen. Pictures of canyon-like ruts and tractors half-buried in mud parade by.
“I farm in Humphreys County in the middle of the south Delta,” says Jack at the mid-January Cotton and Rice Conference in Tunica. “We grow cotton, corn, soybeans, rice and wheat and are about 98 percent irrigated. Most everything is land-leveled and row-watered. We put out a lot of polypipe.”
Since the operation grows five crops, “we have a lot of rotations on our many soil types. That gives us a lot of diversity and in years when our sandy ground might not be as profitable our heavier ground will come through. (The heavier soils) may not be as attractive as others, but if you treat it correctly, you can make it profitable.”
So, how do you grow soybeans behind rice on heavy soils?
The practice, admits Jack, can be “more a headache than a job. There’s an art to it. When you get out in a rice field with ruts up to your knees and have two or three weeks of planting time left, maybe a shower or two in the springtime, you’re forced to do whatever it takes to get the crop in the ground.”
Do it correctly, though, and the rewards will come.
“The type of soil I’m talking about is heavy clay gumbo. That stuff can be nasty. We call it ‘friendly mud’ because you stick to it and it sticks to you.
“It’s very tough on equipment, very tough on your crew, very tough on your budget when it’s been a wet fall. During dry falls, we try to put our rice ground going to beans into rows. Once spring comes, that works very nicely.”
During wet falls, though, there are a lot of ruts.
“One thing to do is keep a large chain handy – or, on our place, we keep three chains handy. We’ve had to hook probably 200 yards together in order to pull tractors out. But that’s what it takes to get the crop in. It can be very frustrating. You need patience.”
Dry fall scenario
During a dry fall, Jack and crew usually flatten their rice levees.
"Use a levee-splitter, a disk, whatever you can get across the levee to get it knocked down and smoothed off.
“Once the levee is smoothed out, if we can burn the rice stubble, we do. If it doesn’t burn, that doesn’t stop us from going forward because we’re on a time schedule. You want to get the field rowed up before it rains.”
The crew uses a roll-a-cone hipper to make 12-row, 38-inch beds. Jack is a big fan of the hippers. “This is a very tough, very durable piece of machinery and work on all soil types. Over three years of heavy use, we’ve only broken a couple of bolts. I’m not a machinery salesman but there isn’t another piece of equipment on our farm that has lasted that long. And they’re economical, as well.
“So, we drag that through a rice field. It may plug up once or twice but we just drop, get unstuck and take off again. It doesn’t look pretty after the first round. Wait a day or two, come back and hit the field a second time. That’ll give you a row that looks a bit untidy.”
Then, just leave the field for the winter rains. “When you come back, you’ll drag it, roll it or, like we did in 2013, just drop in and plant on the row. We cut 80-bushel soybeans doing that.”
Wet fall scenario
For a wet fall, you’ll need not only patience but luck, says Jack. And “there will be lots of ruts. In the springtime, you have to get the ground turned over. Do whatever it takes, push the limits.”
In the fall of 2012, “we pretty much took an old three-point hitch chisel plow, put it on a big tractor and then drove across the field as fast as we could. We dropped the plow when we could. We just wanted the ground turned over. The sun was shining, the wind was blowing.”
If possible, go across the field once in the morning and come across it again in the afternoon. “Next thing you know, the ruts are being filled in and the ground is drying out.
“Use your old cultivators when doing this. You could tear something up.
“If it’s about to rain and you have fist-sized clods, go get your Great Plains harrow and drag it across the field and try to smooth it off as best you can.”
If rains are going to hold up for a couple of days, “go get your hipper and row it up. Then use a roller to pack the rows down.
“Basically, you’re taking mud and making it into little pellets of dirt. Squeeze all that together and, with just a little rain, there will be enough moisture to germinate your soybeans.”
Planting, warns Jack, is worse than tillage.
“In that same field, we did the tillage on Monday and Tuesday. A small shower hit on Wednesday. We started planting on Thursday.
“We had to leave the bottom 20 percent of the field unplanted. It just got too late. And for the rest of the field, we had to pull the planter, a lot.”
The crew kept an extra tractor with a chain hooked to it “just to pull the planters around. We also kept some extra crew around to help clean the mud off the planters. It wasn’t pretty but we got the beans in the ground.”
Then, another small shower came in and the beans took off and began growing.
“Like I said -- there’s zero science to this madness. We had bad attitudes, we had people upset. It’s a good thing this ground is out in the middle of nowhere because the crew would have walked home if it was closer to town.”
Sweeps are also key. “The best scenario is to bed up in the fall. The second-best scenario is to knock the ruts out in the spring then row up and get a shower.
“We didn’t have those options, though. The time schedule, weather patterns were against us. So, we had sweeps on all our planters to clean out the row as we planted. We planted flat and with the sweeps it provided a little bit of a trench.”
The crew came back right before lay-by and hit it with another row-cleaner tool. “That cleaned out the middles a second time and made them a bit deeper so we could row-water.”
Is the hassle ultimately worth it?
“We averaged somewhere between 56 and 58 bushels to the acre using this practice. We had 500 acres, or so, that wouldn’t have produced soybeans without doing this.”
What about the seeding rate?
“We do increase it some – 140,000 to 150,000 – depending on what it looks like behind the planter. Are we getting good closure? Is there a shower coming in a couple of days? Do we need to put out a couple extra seeds out?”
“We use CruiserMaxx with Vibrance.”
“We use an early burndown in the fall – aerial application. We’ll come back in the spring if necessary. Even rice fields that are still rutted up, we’ll burndown to make sure we don’t have a lot of coverage. We’re trying to get the sun and wind to the ground. Weeds might pull some moisture up but they’ll also provide too much ground coverage.”