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Missouri farmer takes 'High Yield' to a whole new level

Kip Cullers takes the phrase "High Yield Team" to a whole new level.

Cullers is the southwest Missouri farmer who gained instant celebrity status this week when it was announced that he had set a new world record for soybean yield at 139 bushels an acre. He joined the Successful Farming and Agriculture Online High Yield Team program for soybean farmers last spring, and then followed the program's stories and email updates through the growing season. The High Yield Team goal was to help growers bring soybeans back to a level of competitiveness with corn.

To say that Cullers succeeded would be quite an understatement.

The Missouri Soybean Association had representatives on hand at harvest to certify the record yield.

Yes, Cullers told us over his cell phone, he joined the High Yield Team (co-sponsored by Syngenta's AgriEdge program), read all of our stories, and liked the program. But the fact is, getting soybeans to yield over 100 bushels an acre takes a level of management that goes way beyond what most farmers can and will do.

Cullers planted the 40-acre field on May 20, and harvested it on October 7. He drilled about 300,000 seeds per acre, and had a harvest population of 245,000 plants. The Pioneer seed was a late group 4 maturity.

One of the things Cullers credits for his super yields may sound backwards to other soybean farmers: Plant big seeds. "A lot of farmers plant small seeds [because there are more of them in a bag,]" he says. "But I believe that small seeds produce small soybeans, and big seeds yield big soybeans. These soybeans that I grew were really big, and that added to yield. The stalks on these plants were big, too, as big as your thumb." The protein content of the beans was also very good at 41%.

Despite that size of stalk and volume of beans, Cullers says they went through his rotary combine easily. The plants were straight and untangled at harvest. They were drilled with a JD drill, but Cullers isn't necessarily sold on drilling as the preferred system for planting soybeans. Next year his plan is to plant twin-row beans. The twin rows will be 7.5 inches apart, and those double rows will be on 30-inch centers. He thinks he'll get better precision control of seed placement compared to the drill. "I'm just going to try it, and see what I can learn," he says. "If I learn something on these test fields, then I apply it to my regular fields."

Cullers' main farming enterprise is growing vegetable crops, including green beans. He applied some of his management practices from green beans to his record-setting soybeans. For instance, he irrigates, and in the heat of summer he puts two or three tenths of an inch of water on beans every day (or sometimes twice that much water every other day). "You have to cool bean plants down during the heat of the day, or else they will abort blooms and pods," he says. From about the Fourth of July on, his soybeans were getting that sprinkling of water every day or every other day. "If the sun is out in the summer, we're going to be over 90 degrees here," he says. "So we're irrigating every day in July, August, and most of September."

Putting water on soybeans every day creates conditions ripe for plant diseases. "The plants are always damp, and there is always disease pressure," Cullers says. He sprayed them twice (aerially) with Headline fungicide and Warrior insecticide. "We had tremendous plant health all year," he says.

Cullers Pioneer agronomist, Greg Luce, concurs with Cullers that frequent watering to keep soybean plants cool on hot days gives a real boost. Previous research work with irrigated soybeans has not been particularly fruitful, he says. But most of that work has involved late-season irrigation, on the theory that big soybean yields are made late in the growing season. But what Cullers has done may show the value of early irrigation to maintain flowers and pods. "We know that most soybeans lose 60 to 70 percent of the flowers without ever producing a pod," says Luce. "Kip kept the pods on the plants. He's showing us that soybeans have greater yield potential than we thought." At harvest, Cullers soybeans averaged about 120 pods per plant.

The 40-acre soybean field that produced the high yield is part of a 160-acre field, in which the other 120 acres was in corn. He watered the soybeans in the day time, and the corn at night. The corn in that field averaged about 270 bushels an acre this year. Last year, the same field produced a 346 bushel corn yield in the NCGA corn contest. "We've actually gone after high corn yields more than we have soybeans," says Cullers.

As good as his soybean yield was, Cullers thinks it could have been even better. "The high I saw on the yield monitor as I was combining was 165 bushels," he says. He says the entire 40-acre field averaged between 115 and 120 bushels an acre. There were two plots measured for the yield contest, each totaling about 5 acres. The first, Pioneer 94M90, set a new record at 131 bushels an acre, then the second plot, Pioneer 94M80, went 8 bushels better.

Cullers hasn't sold his soybeans yet, but says that earlier this week he could have sold at $6.75 a bushel. At that price and 139 bushels an acre, the gross return is about $940 an acre. He says his per-acre cost to grow those soybeans, including the water costs but not the land (it's owned by his family), was $300. He says that profit potential for high-yield soybeans is much better than it is on high-yield corn. "We do a lot more to the corn that adds up in expenses, things such as foliar fertilizer and fly-on chemicals."

While those per-acre gross return numbers may seem incredible to most corn and soybean farmers, they aren't quite so impressive when stacked up against Cullers vegetable crops. He can grow a winter-spring crop of spinach, which might gross $2,500 an acre or more. Then he can follow that up with two crops of green beans, which each can gross $1,000 an acre on those same acres.

He isn't ready to rest on 139-bushel beans as a crowning achievement. In fact, he has two numbers in the back of his head: 200 and 500. As in, 200 bushel-an-acre soybeans, and 500-

bushel-an-acre corn. "We've got a lot way to go to get there," he says. "But that's the goal. You got to have a goal."

Kip Cullers takes the phrase "High Yield Team" to a whole new level.

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