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Rainy day gives High Yield Team farmers chance to reflect on the soybean crop

Rain in the midst of harvest season is not necessarily a bad thing.

It gives farmers time to catch their breath as they work on the combine, deliver grain, do paperwork or even run an election campaign.

We visited several farmers in this middle week in October who are part of our High Yield Team of soybean growers. All still have crops in the field, and were finding other things to do as they waited for sunshine. (The HYT program, sponsored by Successful Farming and Syngenta's AgriEdge, is designed to find ways to enhance soybean yields and profits.)

In far southwest Iowa, HYT farmer Richard Dittberner didn't mind a couple days of rain because it gave him a little time to work on his campaign -- he's running for county supervisor of Fremont County, his first venture into politics.

Dittberner, with 200 acres of soybeans still to cut, says yields so far have been excellent, but only because of "divine guidance. I don't know how else to explain it." With little rain in July, and just spotty showers in August, his best yields have been over 60 bushels an acre, or 15 to 20 bushels better than he estimated back in September.

"Once the leaves started to drop, you could see there were a lot of pods," Dittberner says. "The thing that may have saved us is that there was very little insect or disease pressure on this crop. We weren't getting much rain, but none of those other things went wrong at the same time."

He gives a lot of credit for his soybean yields to no-till practices, which held the soil moisture during the dry streaks. "We'll be seeing more no-till around here next year," he predicts.

As soon as the beans are harvested, Dittberner plans to immediately seed some of the acres to winter wheat. Wheat prices are spurring his interest in this, as he can contract them for delivery next summer at $4.25 per bushel. His budgeted cost to seed, fertilize and harvest the crop is $64 an acre, meaning even a 20-bushel wheat yield will be profitable. If he can harvest the wheat in late June, he'll come in right behind with the soybean drill and try to pull off a doublecrop.

Across the Missouri River in Nebraska, HYT member Michael Thomas is sitting in his farm shop south of Yutan with a space heater running, waiting for the rain to stop on a blustery 40-degree day. For him, the timing on the rain isn't so bad, because his combine has been in his dealer's shop for a couple of days anyway, to fix a twisted shaft.

As he recalls the soybean growing season, he says there were some anxious moments in July when he was ready to give up on the crop for lack of moisture (none of his fields are irrigated). Then it cooled off in August, and rained about 10 inches just as the pods were filling.

We had visited Thomas last spring as he planted his last soybeans in dry soil a few miles south of his home. "Those beans turned out to be my best," he says, averaging 65 bushels per acre. In the spring, he had plans to try a foliar fertilizer on some of them to see if it would increase yields.

"But about the time we would have put it on, it was so dry that I didn't think we would get half a crop. I decided not to put any more money into it," he says. "I'm not sure it would have helped anyway, because 65 bushels is about maximum potential here."

Thomas has used a program of herbicide stress induction to increase soybean yields. He adds a little Aim herbicide to his in-season glyphosate, "stinging" the crop and stimulating root development and yield. But this year, he thinks it reduced yields by a few bushels in fields where he used it. "At the time we sprayed those beans, they were struggling just to stay alive due to lack of rain," Thomas says. "I think it was too much stress and took them over the edge. I don't think I'll do that again."

Down the road at Wahoo, Nebraska, Loran Houska is waiting out the weather so he can go back to harvesting corn. Some of his soybean fields produced more than 60 bushels per acre, and he, too, gives credit to no-till practices.

He marvels that he got any yield at all off of a field where we visited him as he planted last spring. Believe it or not, the issue on this field wasn't drought, but a flood!

Despite a dry July, this low-lying field looked perfect all season, says Houska. Then about two weeks before harvest, just as the leaves were turning yellow and after several big rains, the nearby creek flooded the whole field. "You couldn't see any beans, only the sign put up by my seed dealer was sticking above the water," he says. "I've seen that happen before, and usually those beans go down flat and you get zero."

However, the water quickly went off the field that night, and the beans were still standing. Then they got a hard rain the next day, "power washing" most of the mud off of them. They yielded 62 bushels per acre. "They were dirty, and it was no fun combining them," says Houska. "But the quality of the beans was fine, and I don't think I lost more than a bushel or two of yield."

Houska experimented with a starter fertilizer on some of his beans that claimed to improve root growth and enhance yields by up to 10 bushels per acre. However, in side-by-side check plots he only got about a three- to five-bushel bump, not enough to justify the $28 an acre cost. "They're going to have to make it cheaper for me to use it again," he says. "I know some other farmers tried it, too, and I'll be anxious to hear if they had better results."

Houska has heard all the talk about growing more continuous corn, due to growing demand from ethanol plants. But he probably won't change his regular 50-50 rotation next year. "I like growing soybeans, they're easier and cheaper to grow than corn," he says. "They take less inputs and less chemicals." Then he laughs, "I'm going to be the guy growing $8 to $10 soybeans next year."

Clarke McGrath, an Iowa State University Extension agronomist, also joined the HYT. He's now the partner program manager for the Iowa Corn and Soybean Initiative, whose goal it is to help growers be more profitable while still maintaining environmental stewardship. McGrath works with ag retail partners across Iowa on the program.

If there's one thing he would like to get across to soybean growers this fall it is that they should be checking their soils for soybean cyst nematodes (SCN), the number-two yield robber. A lot of farmers don't know they have SCN, and don't plant resistant soybean varieties. When you run soil fertility samples, you can ask the lab to check for SCN. At one time, the SCN-resistant varieties didn't yield as well the regular varieties, but that's not true anymore. Many farmers could enhance yields by planting them, McGrath says.

Rain in the midst of harvest season is not necessarily a bad thing.

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