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High Yield Team: 4 basic steps to better beans

Neil Schlaak picks soybean varieties with maturities ranging between Group 1.5 and 2.3. "You never know what type of year it will be," he says.

Neil Schlaak doesn't use any fancy-pants technology to grow soybeans. No razzle-dazzle fertilizers. No magic growth potions. No top-secret varieties.

Yet, the New Richland, Minnesota, farmer had his best-yielding soybeans ever in 2005. His farm-wide soybean yields averaged 68.2 bushels an acre.

Granted, picture-perfect weather helped Schlaak and other southern Minnesota farmers to hover around the 70-bushel-an-acre threshold last year. However, some solid production practices used by Schlaak and others can capitalize on good growing years and help endure lean years. Two instances are when drought tinged Schlaak's farm in 2003 and when cold soils and cool temperatures pummeled 2004 yields.

"I'm not saying we have all the answers, but the primary thing we’ve struck upon here is going back to the basics," says Mark Bernard, Schlaak's New Richland-based crop consultant and a High Yield Team expert panelist. Here are four practices that can apply to any soybean area.

1. Tiling. "Drainage is a big factor here," says Schlaak. Well-tiled soils can widen the planting window by five to seven days, a window that's particularly important in soggy springs. Adequate drainage also discourages the establishment of soil pathogens that thwart soybean seedlings.

"We've found that without good drainage on our clay loam soils, all other management strategies tend to take a backseat," says Bernard. "I have yet to hear farmers in this area complain that they have too much tile in a field."

2. Extended rotations. Schlaak plants canning crops like sweet corn and peas to lengthen the time soybeans are in his rotation. Lengthening this interval has helped stop a buildup of soybean cyst nematode (SCN). Even though Schlaak farms in an area where SCN is prevalent, he has only had to plant an SCN-resistant bean once in a high pH hot spot.

Bernard says SCN-resistant varieties work well for SCN control. "However, egg numbers in some fields have been so high that a rotational strategy was called for," he says. "Not only does it help with SCN, but also it cuts down on background levels of other diseases."

3. Manure. Schlaak has included hog manure in his fertilizer plan since 1994. Besides being a rich nutrient source, manure has also helped raise soil organic matter levels. Higher organic matter levels have teamed with increased earthworm numbers from his no-till strategy and tiling to better manage water.

"The tile drains away excess water, while the organic matter and earthworms help retain water when it’s dry," Schlaak says.

4. Sound insect management. A patient 2005 soybean aphid management plan paid off for Schlaak and Bernard. This pest, which took Minnesota growers by surprise in 2003, again surfaced in 2005. Some growers who didn't treat in 2003 jumped the gun in 2005, spraying before the 250-aphid-per-plant threshold was reached. This wasted time and money.

"Two years ago, there were also cases where every field was sprayed the same day," says Schlaak. "This time, though, we sprayed fields one by one, depending upon if the threshold had been reached. The best thing to do was not to make a snap decision."

Mark Bernard (below) says root damage by soybean cyst nematode can be dodged by extended rotations.

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