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High Yield Team: The ESPS edge

Like many Delta farmers, Marc Curtis plants earlier-maturing varieties in April. "I think everyone is now doing a better job managing soybeans," he says.

It's been said that as soybean production goes in the three "I" states (Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana), so it goes for the rest of the U.S.
Well, maybe. Yet, there's a good soybean story happening in the Mississippi River Delta that bears mention, too.

Soybean producers there are turning heads through the Early Soybean Production System (ESPS) pioneered by Larry Heatherly, who recently retired as a USDA-ARS research agronomist at Stoneville, Mississippi. This system stresses planting in April using early- maturing, short-stature varieties in narrow rows. ESPS allows growers to dodge late-summer droughts that are common in the Delta.

Revolutionary concept

Heatherly started work on ESPS in the mid-1980s after struggling with conventional systems for 10 years. "I realized that drought avoidance was the key to soybean success in the middle South," he says.

Early on, ESPS was a revolutionary concept not well received by Southern soybean icons.

"There were no adapted varieties, and the old Southern breeders did not jump on the bandwagon to develop any," says Heatherly. "We had to scrounge for varieties from other regions until the private breeders started releasing adapted varieties. The commercial people are responsible for ESPS varieties, and my hat is off to them for taking the risk."

ESPS has been adopted on about one third of the 8 million soybean acres in the lower Mississippi River Valley. In the past five years, ESPS has increased income more than $75 million per year in a six-state area.

"We had the best yields ever this past year," says Marc Curtis, a Leland, Mississippi, farmer and a High Yield Team panelist. His dryland soybeans averaged 40 bushels an acre, while irrigated soybeans pushed into the 55- to 60-bushel-an-acre range.

"It used to be recommended that you start planting on May 15," he says. "Now, if you're not done planting by May 15, you’re late."

Why does it work?

Planting varieties in the recommended maturity groups of 3 and 4 in April allows plants to hit their reproductive stage when the region traditionally receives rain. Planting varieties from maturity groups 5 through 7 in May and June severely stresses plants when they flower and fill pods during dry late summers. "It's not unusual in my operation to go from July 4 to Thanksgiving without a rain," says Curtis.

ESPS soybeans have a sizeable yield and economic advantage over conventional plantings. Yield data from 1976 to 2003 at the Stoneville USDA-ARS station pegs the average yield of ESPS dryland soybeans planted before April 16 at 40.6 bushels an acre. In contrast, yields of later-maturing varieties planted between May 16 and June 1 ranged between 26.4 and 28.6 bushels an acre.

Using production cost estimates based on 2005 input prices and 1976 to 2003 station yields, ESPS dryland soybeans had a net return of $98.11 an acre. This compares to $16.56 an acre for traditional dryland soybean plantings.

The ESPS has some concerns. Stinkbug populations peak when ESPS soybeans form pods. Thus, it's recommended that producers monitor populations and treat at threshold levels. And even in Mississippi, April soils can be cool. It’s further recommended that fungicide seed treatments be used at planting.

Overall, though, ESPS has worked well for Delta soybean producers.
"I don't think people have had a real handle on what the early planting and early-maturing varieties have meant to the South," says Alan Blaine, Mississippi State University Extension soybean specialist.

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