Riding on the edge of doubt, Jimmy Frederick chewed his fingernails and stared down from the box. On a fine day in early May, he planted soybeans while making long, three-quarter of a mile passes across a Nebraska field—and slowly punched 50,000-60,000 seeds per acre into the soil. As the tractor eased down the rows at 2 mph, Frederick began sending smartphone pictures of the monitor numbers to his farming buddies. His phone buzzed with return texts: “Jimmy, are you sure you’re not planting corn? Jimmy?”
Despite his initial misgivings, Frederick had just lit a slow-burning fuse on an absolute bin-buster. In October 2018, his extremely low planting rate resulted in an astonishing 138 bu. per acre dryland soybean yield. The 138 bpa yield covered 10 acres of a 204-acre field planted between 50,000-80,000 seeds per acre. However, the rest of the field also came in with booming yields between 90-110 bpa, and was planted at seeding rates varying from 110,000-130,000: All dryland and all managed with biologicals.
Alongside his father, James, Frederick farms 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans across a mix of terraces, hills and bottom ground in Rulo, Neb., located in the southeast corner of the Cornhusker State. Typically, his soybean yields bounce from 75-90 bpa on non-irrigated ground. Prior to 2018, the flat, 204-acre field had been in continuous corn for a decade, and the silty Marshall soils produced strong yields, typically above 200 bpa. “I think the corn must have really helped put a lot of carbon in the ground,” Frederick says. “After we cut corn in 2017, we did a little vertical till and that’s it. I ran my usual Roundup program the next spring and didn’t have any weed issues to speak of going into planting.”
Frederick, 37, has implemented biologicals for five consecutive years, with disciplined use and a long-term target on soil improvement. No microwave yield jumps or presto ingredients. There is no “dump and boom” biological formula according to Frederick, but rather a slow brew toward building healthy soil.
Out of the gate, Frederick is obsessive in setting puzzle pieces into place: “Corn or beans, I focus on making sure every seed has plenty of food when it sprouts. Providing food later is too late for a malnourished plant. It’s like putting an anorexic in front of a buffet—they can’t eat and catch up like that.”
Hoping and Hiding
On May 11, Frederick began planting at 2 mph, and dropped seeds at a 1” depth into 30” rows. He ran fertilizer in-furrow with the planter: “I put on Biovante’s new Nutri-HQ 3-18-18, and then ran all Biovante’s biologicals in-row. The equipment was pretty much all Precision Planting including DeltaForce, vDrive, FurrowJet, but I also used BANDIT from Yield 360.”
Following planting, Frederick anxiously waited to see how the seeds would respond to the various planting rates: 5 acres at 50,000-60,000, 5 acres at 70,000-80,000, and the remainder of the 204 acres went in at 110,000-130,000. Chris Masters, president of Biovante, coaxed Frederick toward low seed rates. “I want to give the plant the ability to flex,” Masters explains. “Get the right variety combined with the right timing on applications, and the soybeans with low populations are able to flex and express themselves. To think that Jimmy was headed for a high of 138 bu. in dryland beans planted between 50,000-60,000 is unheard of.”
“We used BioCore and BioMate (sugars with biologicals), BioFlex (inoculant) and Assist (fulvic acid) in an in-furrow package,” Masters says. Frederick had never heard of a farmer planting soybeans at 50,000, and skepticism pushed him to place the acreage at the back of his field, furthest from view on an adjoining highway: If the experiment curdled, at least the ugly rows would relatively be hidden from visibility. But no matter how justified, Frederick’s doubts would rapidly melt away in a matter of weeks.
“In about a month, I couldn’t see any obvious differences in the field as the rows filled in,” Frederick recalls. “I applied more biologicals and potassium and just waited.”
By pod set, the beans began talking. Pods per plant varied according to population, according to Frederick. “I knew something big and cool was coming. The pods were heavy everywhere, but I could walk into the 50’s without cherry-picking and always grab a 280 or 300. I had one plant with 419.”
“This is a numbers game,” Masters emphasizes. “Let’s say the average grower gets 14-15 nodes per plant, holding an average of 2-3 pods per node. Jimmy was at 24-27 nodes and steadily 6-7 pods per node—a huge shift. He went low and made it up in pods. Lesser mouths retained more food. More energy, shorter, more pods, more nodes; again, a numbers game.”
Masters acknowledges high soybean yields with high planting populations, but says profitability is an increasingly crucial issue. “I’m excited about raising overall farm averages up 3, 7 or 10-plus bu. This is a culture shock to go this low. Jimmy has been consistently lowering populations and still watching yields increase or stay level.”
During the crop season, Mother Nature threw Frederick several curveballs. His dryland soybeans barely got a drink during a two-month stretch of almost no rain: half-inch in June, quarter-inch in July. Conversely, over four weeks in August and September, the crop was drenched with roughly 15” of moisture. Yet, when harvest arrived at the beginning of October, he knew the plants were loaded. “I figured this had to be a record yield, at least for me. The beans looked crazy, but you can never be sure until you run the combine.”
“This crop was so strong,” Masters emphasizes. “The seeds were large; consistently 2,000 per pound. Probably 95% of the plants were 3-pods, with a fair amount of 4-pods and rarely a 2-pod.”
Fellow Richardson County grower Joe Niedfeldt says Frederick’s pulled plants were stunning: “They were flat-out amazing with unheard of pod counts. I had told Jimmy he was crazy to plant that low population, but he made it work. After some nudging from Jimmy, lower population is something I’ve also put in my fields.”
Niedfeldt, 38, grows 3,500 acres of corn and soybeans, and dropped his population by 25,000-35,000 across his entire soybean acreage in 2018, mainly settling on 125,000-135,000 spa, although he had a portion of acreage at 105,000. Typically, his dryland soybean yields range from 50-75 bpa. “We had really tough weather in June and July, with almost no rain, but across my operation I either maintained or added yield, and got rid of lodging problems from tall, ragged plants. I was nervous, but I was blown away by how well the lower populations worked.”
In addition, Niedfeldt placed 100 acres in side-by-side tests of biological products combined with low populations. “I’m just starting to learn about tissue sampling soybeans, at the advice of Jimmy, and I haven’t used all the practices that he does, but this takes time and I want to go slow. In the past, I’ve planted, sprayed for weeds and then harvested. That’s over with. I was walking in my fields all summer.”
Niedfeldt’s overall soybean seed purchase dropped by 500 units. “We ended up needing 500 less than we’d ordered. No question: Lower populations kept more money in my pocket this year. We saved on seed, increased harvestability, and boosted yield. It does take time and effort to retrain yourself how you grow your soybeans or any crop for that matter, but I want to find the sweet spot.”
When Frederick began cutting (desiccation was unnecessary), the monitor began to sing and yield numbers danced from 90-110 bpa all over the 204 acres, but the area planted at 50,000-60,000 seeds per acre rang up a shocking 138 bu. per acre. “Those bushels just poured in and the whole deal showed me the impact of carbon after 10 years of corn. Also, I know I’ve got to focus less on P and K.”
Frederick planted two varieties in the field, and the top yielder was Asgrow 36X6. “The keys to Jimmy’s yields were placement, selection and timing of material, along with variety selection. We also used no synthetic fertilizers,” Masters says. “This comes down to energy, energy, energy.”
“Also, there are no ungodly costs. The in-furrow package is less than $12 per acre and can be applied with the planter. Individually, a product like BioCore is $3.78 per acre and our number over yield is 3-13 bu.”
Frederick is no stranger to remarkable yields. In 2017, he cut 163.9 bu. per acre soybeans across 40 acres of an irrigated 130-acre field. In addition, the rest of the field also held superior yields, averaging 100-plus bu. (The field was planted at a uniform 115,000 spa.)
(For more on the 2017 irrigated yields, see Jimmy Frederick Booms 163 Bu. Soybeans)
The long-term approach to biologicals is paying dividends on Frederick’s land, according to Masters: “The transition takes three or four years to really take hold, but it leads to better emergence, a better stand, and a reduction in synthetic fertilizers because the soil retains what is needed.”
“This year, Jimmy’s dryland yields highlighted the importance of seed spacing, population, the right products to promote growth outward instead of up, application timing, quality of products and variety selection,” Masters continues.
“I’ve known Jimmy over 20 years,” Niedfeldt adds. “He’s always thinking toward something different. As farmers, sometimes we get in a rut thinking we’ll spend all our money on seed and fertilizer, and then raise a helluva crop, but it doesn’t always work out. Jimmy doesn’t let himself get stuck in that growing rut.”
What about Frederick’s plans for 2019? “Right now, I don’t know exactly what will work again next year, but I do know I’m definitely going to continue lowering more planting populations. I’m going to move more acreage to 70,000-80,000 and take more time to plant; go slow,” he concludes. “It saves me so much money on seed. I’m still learning, but I know what I’m seeing take place in my fields.”
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