Proven Tactics to Boost Bushels

December 5, 2015 02:04 AM
Proven Tactics to Boost Bushels

The race to harvest as many bushels as possible is part of farming. The 10-bu.-per-acre gain farmers have racked up just since the turn of the century (from an average 38 bu. to 48 bu. per acre) is evidence of the march of progress as farmers refine their management practices. This is why it’s helpful to learn from the outliers, farmers such as Matt Miles of Arkansas and Ben Daily of Indiana. Even if achieving 100 bu. per acre on your farm isn’t feasible, some of these farmers’ agronomic techniques and farming methods can help you make the most of your acres. 

Fertility and Teamwork Relieve Soybean Stress 

By Chris Bennett

During a two-week stretch in July, Matt Miles finished his field rounds at 9 p.m., cleaned up for a late supper, indulged in a bit of television and then checked the temperature before turning in for the evening. Enter Sandman: more than 90°F at 11 p.m., heat index hovering just above 100° and a crop field taking a beating. A 15-day stretch of intense heat in southeast Arkansas can drain a farmer’s strength—and crush his soybean yields.

Miles knew he was losing money to the high temperatures, but he was ready for the yield battle. No adjustment was necessary because of his no-stress policy put in place long before the arrival of scorching heat. Minimal stress is paramount for strong yield, down to the last acre. On Miles’ farm, the road to stress relief is paved with top-notch fertility and teamwork. 

On his Desha County, Ark., ground, 5,200 acres of high-yielding soybeans are testament to his method. “I don’t want even one acre to feel stress, so fertility must be optimal,” Miles says. 

Theory and conjecture hold little sway with Miles. Tale-of-the-tape practical results have propelled him to a soybean treble. In 2015, he eclipsed 100 bu. per acre for the third consecutive year in the Arkansas’ Grow for the Green soybean yield contest. The five-acre contest plots are sweet spots, but they’re not unique; the surrounding fields also cut extremely high yields.

When it comes to growing soybeans, consultant Robb Dedman, left, and farmer Matt Miles have a “no-stress policy” that starts with soil sampling to gauge fertility.

Despite the yield numbers, Miles is quick to deflect credit: “There are a lot better farmers in my area than me. I’m not the one responsible for these yields. Every part of my team is excellent. By recognizing I’m not the smartest farmer, I reach out for help from my team,” he says.

Consultant Robb Dedman plays a crucial role in Miles’ operation. Dedman grid samples every acre on a two-year rotation. “Fertility is key to crop success—soybeans or any other crop. If you don’t have solid-based fertility, then you’re leaving money on the table with your yields,” Dedman notes. 

Optimal fertility is a long-term pursuit. Miles puts out a blanket rate of 1.5 tons per acre of chicken litter across his soybean ground, sampled and analyzed by the source to ensure premium phosphorus and potassium. Chicken litter is followed by variable-rate potash and phosphate. “You want to cut back on input costs? Fertility is not the place,” Miles warns.

“No matter what, don’t skimp on soil sampling,” Dedman adds. “Never expect high-yielding crops from low-fertility soil. It won’t happen.”

Dedman also emphasizes variety selection. Whether workhorse or racehorse, the right soybean variety has to match soil type. 

Miles runs polypipe irrigation top to bottom with a 38" bed—twin-row spacing at 7.5" apart. His typical planting population ranges from 155,000 to 165,000, but he acknowledges 140,000 is ideal. However, six to seven seeds on each side of the bed don’t provide enough pushing power on his ground, so he compensates with a higher seed rate to ensure strong standability. Every seed is inoculated with CruiserMaxx. 

“Do you send your child to school in a T-shirt when it’s cold? No, you send him in a coat so he doesn’t get sick. I want to vaccinate my seeds, give them all the health I can and relieve stress at the same time,” Miles says.

Irrigation timing weighs heavily in Miles’ no-stress policy, with the first and last applications the most consequential. Miles minds his crops by the day and initiates the first watering at the precise point of need—ignoring the seductive voices promising one more rain and lower fuel costs. A single day’s hesitation to turn on the pumps during bloom drains yield. 

Yet, as the irrigation season drags, Miles’ team lays out more polypipe, hooks up the rolls, punches holes, shovels the middles and battles heat for several months. Bushels are also at stake during the final watering when plants finish with a tremendous amount of grain fill. The last irrigation isn’t about cost, and Miles doesn’t hold back water. With diesel in the tank and the bulk of labor expended, the pivotal final irrigation is the cheapest.

As a boy, Miles helped his father grow cotton. When the modules were gone, the season was over. Ruts in the field or not, the pair went deer hunting. The demands of farming have since changed, and Miles has adapted, extending his preparation well beyond the final row cutting. Harvest is now a single phase of farming—and it’s not the last. Miles pulls soil samples directly behind combines and follows with chicken litter application. Litter is mixed in the soil by rebedding, disking or a similar field preparation. 

Nothing happens by chance on Miles’ farm—preparation carries the day. He minds the soybean minutia, driving forward each season purpose-bound to his no-stress policy. 

“I work with great landowners, and soybean yields have been really strong, but I’m not the only one making them,” he emphasizes. “The sharp team working with me pulls hard, and we’re blessed to make these soybean yields together. Next year, we’ll once again do whatever it takes to keep stress off our soybeans. Sometimes it’s just that simple.”

Focused Plants Use Energy to Pack On Pods

By Sonja Begemann

In a year when the weather weighed especially heavy on yield potential, the Daily family from Hope, Ind., defied the odds. Ben Daily, along with his brother, Evan, and father, James, surpassed 100 bu. per acre through careful management. 

“It’s all about adding yield to increase profit,” says Ben Daily. 

The Dailys achieved 102 bu. on 3.2 acres, and the entire 40-acre field averaged 91 bu. Compared with the USDA national soybean average for 2015 of 48.3 bu. per acre, the Daily’s 91 bu. grossed $369.36 more per acre at $8.65 per bushel. 

To double soybean yield, the trio made it a point to focus on the elements that influence yield—variety selection, weather, water availability and photosynthesis.

First, they reduced their planting population to 140,000 plants per acre and planted longer-season soybeans earlier in the spring. The simple adjustments allow soybeans more room to bush out, capture sunlight and flower. 

Variety selection can make or break a season before the seed is in the ground. “Farmers who do well make sure they select varieties that suit their farm and management style. They’re never complacent,” says Bill Wiebold, University of Missouri Extension soybean specialist.

To double soybean yield, Evan, James and Ben Daily (left to right) focused on the four elements that affect yield—weather, water, sun and seed.

Before planting, the Dailys worked with their seed provider to find the best variety for the unique field they set aside to push yield. 

“You have to get the one that has the potential for 100 bu.,” Daily says. Some soybeans have that potential and others, especially older varieties, have a lower yield cap.

Throughout the season, the Dailys dealt with too much and too little rain. “The third week of July it rained 8.5" in four days. We dodged the bullet, but some areas suffered damage,” Daily says. “After that, the rain shut off.”

When you’re intentionally trying to bolster yields, it’s beneficial to look at historical weather trends and have contingency plans for whatever Mother Nature throws at you.

While the Dailys’ sandy loam soils hold on to water, irrigation proved to be helpful when the rain stopped. Toward the end of the season, they had to turn on the irrigation to meet the plants’ needs during reproductive phases. By providing much-needed water, they reduced plant stress, allowing for more flowering, which results in more pods. Irrigation can be costly, but taking advantage of the option during critical times, such as pod set, can bring significant returns.

Yield relies on photosynthesis, which relies on the crop’s ability to capture sunlight. Overall plant health is essential to the photosynthesis process. You can reduce light and water competition through early planting, plant spacing, timely fungicide or nutrient applications and effective weed management.

“Soybeans are about sunlight,” Daily says. “This season, we kept an eye on them at all times. It was more attention than most give soybeans.”

When scouting, the Dailys look for fungi or diseases that could reduce plant health and interrupt photosynthesis. When a fungus or disease is present, the plant uses its energy to get healthy instead of setting pods. In high-yield scenarios, you can’t afford to have a plant with divided focus.

In addition to less pressure from neighboring plants, the Dailys manage weed pressure through frequent 
scouting and timely herbicide applications. According to the University of Illinois, one giant ragweed per square meter can reduce soybean yield by 52%. Without scouting, the Dailys might not have caught weeds in time, and the weeds could have decimated yield potential.

The Dailys make sure they’re prepared to act when scouting. They worked with BASF representative, Nichole Mercer, who provided free chemicals for their quest to 100 bu. Free chemicals were provided as part of the 100 bushel challenge extended to a limited number of farmers . Together, they scheduled preplant and in-season nitrogen applications. They also planned to apply fungicide twice to preserve plant health. Due to weather conditions, the Dailys only used fungicide once and had to use a foliar application of nitrogen.

“The biggest learning moment for me was to put additional nitrogen on beans,” Daily says. The nitrogen helped boost overall plant health and kept the plant’s focus on yield.

When it comes to planting, spraying, tillage and harvest, it can be easy to toss out the importance of soil health, but Wiebold warns the consequences could linger for years to come. “Sometimes, respect for soil goes out the window because we need to get things done, but we need to protect future yield,” he says.

Soil compaction leads to shallow roots that can’t take in the water a plant needs. You want roots to extend through multiple soil layers so in dry years, they can reach the water table.

If you hope to achieve 100-bu. yields, or just increase yields, it’s important to do the math and determine if it’s possible.

“You have to have an honest assessment of what Mother Nature provides,” Wiebold says. “If you don’t have the top-end yield potential, 100-plus bushels might not be possible no matter what you do.”

The Daily family is looking forward to applying what they learned about increasing yields next season. 

“We’re going to go for 100 bu. on all of our irrigated acres next year and check the weather before spending additional dollars on the other beans,” Daily says.

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