Mike Ellis' soybean harvest was gridlocked by a lingering late-October fog on the three-generation southern Iowa family farm, where Ellis, his father and his son raise 600 to 700 acres of soybeans, along with corn, hay, cattle and hogs. In southern Illinois, Bryan Curry was already in the combine by mid-morning, harvesting 1,700-1,800 acres of soybeans alongside his father on the rolling farmland.
While the two farms vary, both producers were harvesting bin-busting yields after recent years battling both weather and weeds. And both farmers know attention to details put more soybeans in the bin. "You have to know what you're doing and believe in it," Curry says. Those management decisions start now for next year's soybean crop, beginning with the type of crop put into the ground.
Variety selection is the place to start for increased yield
"In our area, southern Iowa, we generally like a fuller-season bean because we have the growing season to plant a fuller-season bean, like the group threes and group fours; we plant several of those," says Ellis, who plants 3.7 to 4.2 maturity beans. "I like those because you get a little extra yield out of them in this part of the country," he says.
While frost usually doesn't strike until mid- to late-October in southern Illinois, Curry spreads his risk — and his harvest labor — by planting a wider range of maturities, from 2.8 to 4.9 maturity rating soybeans. "That range of maturity spreads your risk out. You don't put all your eggs in one basket," he notes.
He also pushes planting date early, typically planting soybeans in April. "You can't be scared to get out there and go," he says of early planting. "Nine out of 10 times when we plant early, we don't have to replant."
Fine-tune planting rates, row width and tillage practices
Curry, who uses 100% no-till, estimates a 92% to 93% germination, with a stand goal of 140,000 to 150,000 plants per acre. "When you no-till, you're not going to get them all in the ground," he notes.
Ellis, who uses a combination of minimum-till and no-till, has typically planted beans for 156,000 on 15-inch rows, but switched in 2014 to 165,000 on 30-inch rows. "We are playing with our seed population, trying some different things," he says. After planting 15-inch and 30-inch rows side-by side, Ellis didn't see a yield bump in the narrower rows. "Which was shocking for us. We thought we'd see a yield bump on the 15's but we're not seeing it," he says. That, coupled with a new planter, prompted the row spacing shift in 2014.
Curry has planted 15-inch rows long-term, looking for the canopy coverage for weed control. "The sooner you can cover the ground, the sooner you're going to eliminate your weeds," he says.
Weed control is the most challenging aspect today
Both Ellis and Curry point to weed control as being their toughest issue the past few years, as prevalent weeds have begun showing resistance to common herbicides.
"We've been fighting pigweed in this area the last three years. You have to spray two or three different times and we've still got weeds," Ellis says. He recalls spraying pigweed (Palmer amaranth) three times two years ago. "It didn't do anything except make the weeds mad," he says. With herbicide resistance becoming an issue, he switched to 350 acres of LibertyLink seed in 2014for the first time. "We've been very, very happy with them," he said. "The weed control has been awesome this time."
He applied a burn-down herbicide on his no-till land, then planted five days later. An application of Liberty herbicide on July 1 offered nonselective post-emergence control of the tough weeds. Bayer CropScience's Liberty and LibertyLink system is built upon a foundation of superior control, even on the toughest weeds. The system reduces the costliness of invasive plants and drives high yields while offering growers long-term operational success.
More problems with development of herbicide resistant weeds
In Illinois, Curry was also noticing herbicide resistance occurring in marestail and pigweed, his two biggest threats in soybean. "That was a severe issue that was just taking over and there really is no product on the market that will kill it but Liberty," Curry says of the marestail invasion. "There are resistance issues out there, but farmers don't want to believe it," he says.
The year 2014 was the second year he has planted 100% LibertyLink beans to combat the problem, after using the LibertyLink variety for the past five years. "The big thing is not having to drive across the field 10 times trying to control weeds you can't control. If a dog bites me once, I'm not going to go back and let him bite me two or three times. You have to get away from it. Don't be hard-headed."
In 2014, Curry applied Liberty herbicide 28 days after planting and didn't spray again. Comparing his costs with a neighbor, his crop was $6 to $8 an acre less costly with weed control. With mostly hilly ground, Curry is unable to apply fall herbicide due to erosion issues. "That restricts us. Fall applications do help and we did it a couple of years and it really created a lot of erosion issues on our ground," he says.
Bean breeders have improved varieties significantly in recent years
While Ellis and Curry selected LibertyLink soybeans due to the Liberty and LibertyLink system, they have both hit top yields with LibertyLink beans this year, another important concern when selecting varieties. Partially completed with harvest, Curry was finding 3.0 maturity beans at 59 to 61 bushels an acre, with some tests topping out at 90 bushels an acre.
Ellis was harvesting between 65 to 67 bushels an acre, which are top yields for his farm. "We have a wonderful crop, probably the best crop we've had in this area probably in 30 years," he said. With advances in technology, the Ellis farm's yield goals have increased in the last five years. "They've bred these soybeans up to where we're kind of expecting a little more yield out of them every year and so far we have," he says. "In the last 10 years, a 45-bushel bean here was phenomenal and now we're pushing 55 to 60 bushel beans in this area."
Other factors include use of seed treatments, soil testing
While Curry doesn't set yield goals, he manages to optimize yields. His go-to products include Stratego YLD fungicide, which provides both preventive and curative activities and systemic movement to provide broad-spectrum, long-lasting disease control and higher yield potential. "We just shoot for the best we can. We're not throwing everything at the soybean. We stick with a couple simple products," he says.
Both farmers use standard seed treatments at planting, then regularly scout fields during the growing season. "It's very important to watch the progress of the crop going through the year and see if you need to change some things here or there," Ellis says.
Paying close attention to details has helped boost bean yields
Another management tool both producers continually use is proper fertilization to keep the plants healthy and able to produce the highest possible yield. This year, Ellis experimented with a liquid starter fertilizer, applying a half rate of 9-18-9 below the seed during planting after seeing great results in his corn. "When we get things planted, we'll have two weeks of cold wet weather here and that liquid starter helps the corn get out of the ground and we've had very good results with it the last five years and we're playing around with some beans to see if we have any yield bump on that," he says.
Curry soil tests every two years, typically applying 150 pounds of potash and 150 pounds of phosphorus per acre. Both Ellis and Curry manage their farms with a keen eye for details, knowing those details determine yields. But as Ellis patiently waits for the fog to clear, he's aware of one factor that can't be controlled – Mother Nature.