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Fred Below's Seven Wonders of Corn program has been a great way to spotlight what it takes to grow high-yield corn. The University of Illinois crop physiologist has used the project to motivate corn growers toward higher yield goals.
Several years ago, Below and I kicked around the idea of doing something similar for soybeans. The Six Secrets of Soybean Success project was born. Below agreed to research and devise a combination of management practices that could be stacked together to increase soybean yield. Much of the work has been, and still is, funded by the Illinois Soybean Checkoff.
I was one of those growers that needed a push. There was a five-year period on our family farm when we didn't grow soybeans. Why grow 30- to 35-bushel beans when we could harvest 150-bushel-per-acre corn? My mentality also made economic sense given the low-tech way in which I was managing our soybean crop at the time. We simply no-tilled, planted glyphosate-tolerant beans, sprayed herbicide once or twice and harvested. That's not a path to 50- or 60-bushel soybeans.
Missouri farmer Kip Cullers woke us all up in 2006 when he produced 139-bushel-per-acre soybeans by following a high-fertility program and making multiple foliar application passes. In 2008, I started putting some of these technologies to work in my fields and immediately produced 68 bushels per acre. It was a wakeup call that I didn't have to settle for 35 bushels.
Below's work examined six factors that had the greatest impact on yield and ranked them as weather, fertility, genetics, foliar protection, seed treatment and row arrangement. Many of the practices Dr. Below identified as important reinforced what I learned in 2008. We had favorable weather that year (cool and wet); the field had been out of soybeans for five years (today we follow a two-thirds corn and one-third soybean rotation); we used a fungicide seed treatments; applied an in-furrow starter and made three passes with a foliar cocktail including a fungicide in the second pass.
I'm still tweaking my system. I've learned to pay much attention to the genetics and do my own homework rather than simply following advice of the seed dealer.
I also strongly believe soybeans need to be planted early by the last week of April or first week of May. Earlier planting results in more pod-bearing nodes. Below doesn't include this in his six secrets list, but it is high on my list. In 2008, we planted in 30-inch rows at 160,000 plants per acre (ppa). We still plant in 30-inch rows, but I do believe narrow rows can be beneficial to yield. Narrow rows may not be as important as other factors, but 20-inch rows planted at about 140,000 ppa look attractive.
Weather is still the decider of soybean yield and belongs in the top spot. It's also a mostly uncontrollable factor. Below's second-place ranking of fertility is appropriate as it is, in my opinion, the most overlooked factor in soybean management. Preplant P and K, planting-time starters and foliar nutritionals are all underutilized. On our farm, I now watch P and K levels in the soil and always include a little starter and make one or two foliar passes. Today, our bean production has doubled over 10 years ago and consistently yields 65 to 70 bushels if the weather cooperates.
It turns out the six steps to soybean success aren't big secrets. However, studying and implementing some of these practical management techniques has sure taken some of the mystery out of how many bushel go into the hopper.