Agronomist Dan Bjorklund

Agronomist Dan Bjorklund talks about how to achieve 80 to 100 bu./acre yields at the ILSoyAdvisor Soybean Summit. 

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Kenneth Franklin, a Christian County, Illinois, soybean grower, is a little untraditional as far as farmers go — favoring continuous soybeans, with some fields entering their third year in 2019.

He attends winter meetings to learn new things and to share ideas about what works for him.

“There’s no point in attending crops events if you aren’t going to do something with the information,” he said on Feb. 5 at the ILSoyAdvisor Soybean Summit in Springfield.

Illinois soybean farmers had confirmation they are doing something right on Feb. 8 when USDA’s 2018 crop production summary report showed the state remained No. 1 for U.S. soybean production in 2018. Achieving the top spot for the fifth time in the last six seasons was attributed to favorable growing conditions, technology and innovation.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service estimated Illinois farmers raised 698.7 million bushels of soybeans on 10.7 million harvested acres with an average yield of 65 bu./acre. Piatt County, one of the leaders in Illinois, is expected to come close to an 80 bu./acre yield this year, said Kris Ehler, sales agronomist at Ehler Bros. Company.

Hot topics

Franklin said one topic featured at winter meetings this year that he is interested in is seeing what micronutrients might do to boost his yields.

“They have been hit or miss in the past,” he said.

As research shows some micronutrient applications seem to have more value, the Taylorville farmer is ready to see what might work on his farm.

Last year, the information that caught his attention was about lower planting populations.

After seeing the research of John McGillicuddy, an independent agronomist, he cut his planting population to 125,000 per acre and got good results while saving on seed costs.

McGillicuddy now has 2018 research backing up the profitability of planting with populations lower than the 140,000 plants per acre — a number that was a standard for years. From tests on 125,000 acres in 92 locations, many in Iowa and Illinois, the sweet spot in 2018 seemed to be 100,000 plants per acre.

“100,000 seeds well-spaced was adequate. Farmers also never made money going above it,” said the co-founder of McGillicuddy Corrigan Agronomics, which has offices in Iowa City, Iowa, and in Gibson City in eastern Illinois.

McGillicuddy said seed singulation is an important factor. When seeds fall three together, the plants compete against each other and reduce yield.

He said even at an 80,000 plant population, the farmers involved never lost money, but it appears to be near the tipping point of profit in some areas. Farmers were seeing almost the same yields as in higher planting populations and saving money on seed costs, he said

Populations may need to be above that in some cases, especially if planting early into cooler soils or areas with weed control issues, for example, said McGillicuddy.

Caveat for 2019

Another factor that might affect planting population choices in 2019 is seed quality and percentage of expected germination, Ehler said.

Christian County farmer Franklin said this year he is considering dropping closer to 100,000 seeds per acre, but he has heard those concerns that germination will be lower this year. He said he will check seed labels and talk with his seed advisors before making any final decisions.

Ehler said seed treatment can help. He said some varieties would have 65 percent germination without seed treatment, but with the right seed treatment, that goes up to 95 percent.

The lower germination rate for some seeds is expected across all platforms and companies in the coming year, he said, and it’s good to pay attention to that.

As a grower who plants soybeans after soybeans, Franklin said his biggest worry is always SDS. He considers prevention costs for the fungal disease to be like insurance on his crop to reduce risk, he said. But SDS wasn’t a problem in 2018.

“The biggest challenge we had (in 2018) was 12 inches of rain at one time,” he said. There was some ponding that brought down yields, but he still had very good crops.

His goal for average whole-farm soybean yield for 2019 is 75 bu./acre.

The biggest challenge in 2018 for some farmers in southern Illinois, where Kelli Basset, a Pioneer agronomist works, was getting crops harvested in poor weather. There are still some farmers in Bond County, Illinois, who are trying to get soybeans harvested, she said.

Tillage and timing

As for tillage, Ehler said different choices are right for farmers with different soil types.

“I saw some questionable tillage this fall. My answer is don’t do it,” he said.

He said he thinks no-till has a place, as does some tillage, done right.

Franklin agrees.

“You know your farm” and are the best one to make tillage decisions, he said.

Early planting has definitely paid off for Ehler in east central Illinois. He has documented above-average yields planting as early as Feb. 22 in 2017.

Basset also notes later-planted soybeans can be profitable, especially when they are part of a double-cropping system after wheat in southern Illinois.

Several farmers at the Soybean Summit said that buying, or having access to a second planter, so corn and soybeans can be planted simultaneously, has brought return on investment from soybean yields.

Finally, some farmers may have lost 6 to 12 bushels per acre last year by not using a “good insecticide,” Ehler said.

While considering return on investment, some farmers decided to skip insecticides this year, or to buy the cheapest option, but in many cases that didn’t turn out to be the right decision, he said. There are more challenges with hard-shelled insects, including Japanese beetles and stink bugs, which may need an effective, more expensive insecticide application, he said.

Sometimes spending money makes money, said Franklin. He’s willing, for example, to spend $3 to $4 per acre on foliar treatments that will give him a payback. It is a good investment for yield, year in year out, he said.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.