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Non-GM Soybeans Could Be Worth a Go in 2019

Careful seed selection, herbicide programs may mean more value for soybean producers.

Seed dealers are already putting a full court press on you to choose soybean seed varieties for the 2019 crop.

Tighter margins may tempt you to follow a different path to prosperity – one in which you may choose to plant non-genetically modified soybeans. To some farmers, the notion is heresy. Seeds containing traits often have vastly improved options for weed control. But Jonathan Kleinjan, crop production Extension associate at South Dakota State University (SDSU), says farmers who choose non-GM soybean varieties may be able to save money and capture value in a specialty market that pays premiums for non-GM beans.

For example, South Dakota Soybean Processors, a farmer-owned LLC that has receiving locations in Volga and Miller/St. Lawrence, pays a premium price for non-GM soybeans, ranging from 20¢ over the Chicago Board of Trade cash price to 10¢ below, depending on location. The boost to growers over GM soybeans is roughly $1 per bushel.

“It’s something you may want to look at,” Kleinjan told growers at the Ag Horizons Conference in Pierre November 27. “A dollar per bushel is nothing to sneeze at in these times.”

The South Dakota market is limited, and the same is true for other states. Yet, researching options for these specialty markets could be worth the effort. First, growers need to communicate with potential non-GM markets to learn whether there is demand for the product. If there is, what’s the storage policy?

“With South Dakota Soybean Processors, growers can contract, but it’s on a buyer’s call basis,” which means farmers need to store the soybeans on their farm until the processor needs them, Kleinjan says.

What about yield drag? Kleinjan says research at SDSU test plots in Beresford, Volga, and South Shore indicate conventional soybean varieties are on par with yields of genetically modified seeds. Across all three sites in 2018, conventional beans averaged 62 bushels per acre; Liberty Link, 69; Roundup Ready 2, 66; and Roundup Ready, 63. Compared to the highest yielding RR2 group of soybeans, conventional soybeans averaged 1.7 bushels per acre less across the three sites. These figures are all conventional beans vs. all genetically modified beans.

“On average, there is a 3-bushel-per-acre yield difference, but you can negate that with variety selection,” he says.

The big difference, he adds, is in the cost of seed. Non-GM soybeans cost less and can yield a premium price.

What about weeds?

The concern with any non-GM seed, of course, is weed control. Broadleaf weeds such as waterhemp and palmer amaranth are daunting. Yet Paul Johnson, weed science coordinator at SDSU, says if growers want to produce non-GM soybeans, weed control is doable, but it will require a bit more management.

Johnson says the principles of weed control are the same in conventional fields as GM fields:

  • Fields must have low weed pressure to begin with.  
  • Make sure all weeds are controlled at planting. “Having that field totally clean at planting is very important. I can’t emphasize that enough,” he says.
  • Use a residual program that controls weeds before planting. Waiting for rain to activate herbicide at planting or thereafter is risky because of the unpredictable nature of rain. “Get the pre-emerge on so you have a better chance to get moisture and get it activated,” he says. However, plan on having a post-emerge herbicide application, too.  
  • Scout your fields. “Have a good crop scouting program in place for the season, and also scout this year for next year,” he explains.
  • Consider bushy beans that canopy sooner than upright selections. The sooner the ground canopies, the quicker weeds will stop germinating – particularly velvetleaf and waterhemp.
  • Consider narrow rows to help canopy early. “There is two to three weeks difference on canopy between 15- and 30-inch rows,” Johnson says.
  • Can you cultivate? It’s been a long time since many farmers have used a row cultivator. (Look in the tree row to see if you have one.)
  • Know your weeds. It’s the only way to know which herbicide options work for you.
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