By Boyd Kidwell
Progressive Farmer Contributor
"A Country Boy Can Survive" is one of Hank Williams Jr.'s best-known songs, and soybean producers may be humming along as they gear up for the 2015 crop. With grain prices down, this is as good a year as any to tighten the belt -- to survive the downturn in the bean market.
It's a tune Travis Starnes, Union County, N.C., may know well. No matter the market prices, he has been producing cost-efficient yields for several years. The 36-year-old farmer from Circle S Ranch took top honors in North Carolina's 2013 Most Efficient Yield (MEY) soybean contest. His cost of production per bushel for double-cropped beans was $3.47. The variety for the winning MEY entry was Asgrow AG5831. To make this MEY entry even more interesting, the 64.5-bushel-per-acre, double-cropped entry followed a wheat yield of 120 bushels per acre.
This result was no accident. Starnes spent $3.88 per bushel on a full-season entry in the 2013 MEY contest. The full-season Asgrow variety AG4632 yielded 79.1 bushels per acre and ranked second in the contest. For good measure, Circle S Ranch had a third MEY entry of $3.91 per bushel with a yield of 77.1 bushels per acre, also with AG4632. That entry ranked fourth best. All three MEY entries came from fields planted in 15-inch rows.
In 2012, Starnes had a sixth-place, full-season entry in the contest. His cost per acre was $3.77 with a yield of 90.2 bushels. In 2011, Circle S Ranch placed second in the MEY contest with a $4.20-per-bushel cost of production. The MEY contest is sponsored by the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association and is administered by Jim Dunphy, of the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension Service.
Starnes treats all of his soybean acres the same. He figures his production cost across 3,500 acres of beans is approximately $4 per bushel.
Variety selection is a key part of Starnes' MEY game plan. "In the last 10 years, the seed companies have released some great soybean genetics. It used to be unusual for us to cut 60-bushel-per-acre beans in North Carolina. Now, I'm cutting a lot of acres with 100-bushel beans, but I haven't had enough contiguous acres for a 100-bushel-per-acre contest entry," he said.
On the other hand, there isn't a silver bullet soybean variety. Starnes has five different soil types across his land and matches soil types with the top varieties for each field. For full-season beans, he likes to use mid- to late--Group IV varieties.
"One of our key decisions every year is matching the right variety with its best soil type," he said. "You need above-average yields to make inputs cost-efficient."
Starnes has reduced his seeding rates as yields have increased. On full-season beans, he plants 85,000 to 100,000 seeds per acre, while many growers plant 120,000 to 160,000 seeds per acre. Lower plant populations allow soybean plants to grow bushy and produce more pods, Starnes observes. A few years ago, he planted between 150,000 and 180,000 seeds per acre.
"If we have good emergence and a solid stand, we actually make higher yields with lower plant populations, and we save approximately $20 per acre on seed costs," Starnes said.
The family's Circle S Ranch is in an area with glyphosate-resistant pigweeds. Battling these resistant weeds adds $25 per acre to production costs, compared to using Roundup Ready soybeans with only glyphosate as the postemergence herbicide.
Before planting full-season soybeans, Starnes applies 1 quart of Roundup ($4.60 per acre) as a burndown. After planting, Starnes applies 1 quart of Prefix ($8.40 per acre) before the soybeans have two to four leaves and before the Palmer amaranth is 4 inches tall. If he waits any later than the two- to four-leaf stage, Prefix can lightly stunt soybeans. But Starnes adds that his beans usually recover with no yield loss.
Starnes makes an over-the-top application with 1 quart of Roundup ($4.60 per acre) or 3 pints of Extreme (Pursuit and glyphosate, at $8.85 per acre) approximately 21 days after the Prefix application. He uses Extreme on fields with heavy morningglory pressure.
He usually tank-mixes a fungicide (Stratego YLD, 4 ounces, $13 per acre) with his second herbicide application because most of his fields have heavy frogeye leafspot disease pressure. Starnes mixes a 5-0-12-8S foliar fertilizer at a rate of 1 gallon per acre ($8 per acre) with this application. Returns from the foliar fertilizer have been variable at Circle S Ranch. Yield responses range from 0 to 5 bushels per acre. Starnes had 7 acres of yield tests on Circle S Ranch in 2014 to learn more about cost-efficient returns from foliar fertilizer.
LEARNING FROM MEY
North Carolina Extension soybean specialist Jim Dunphy has managed the MEY contest since 1991. He said growers are eager to learn what they can do to reduce their production costs. In all, five entries cracked the $4-per-bushel barrier in the 2013 contest.
"We publish a big spreadsheet table, so a producer can find his entry and match his numbers against other soybean growers. This gives each producer a chance to see which of his numbers are toward the top, and where he or she can improve efficiency," Dunphy said.
The veteran soybean specialist also helps growers identify areas where they can cut costs without hurting efficiency. For example, Dunphy has conducted 100 field trials with North Carolina's two most popular fungicides.
In trials with Headline and Quadris, Dunphy recorded an average yield advantage of 2.2 bushels per acre for both fungicides and found no significant difference between performances of the two. Dunphy estimates a chemical cost of $15 to $20 per acre, plus application costs of $5 to $7 per acre.
Likewise, Dunphy has tested foliar fertilizers for yield efficiency. Some growers have attributed substantial yield advantages to foliar fertilizers, but the soybean specialist's experience shows an average yield advantage of only 1.5 bushels per acre.
GRANDPA'S BRAG PATCH
North Carolina ranks second in the country for turkey-growing, and Starnes is one of the many soybean growers who use the poultry litter produced on his family's farm. Starnes applies turkey litter before planting the wheat crop that precedes soybeans in his rotation. The Union County farmer takes soil tests and has the litter analyzed for fertilizer values. He then matches litter application rates with expected yield levels.
While the poultry litter is produced on Circle S Ranch, Dunphy uses a fertilizer cost equal to the value of nutrients removed at the yield level in the MEY contest. Dunphy also allots a production cost for land rental to all of the MEY entries based on the productivity of the soils. This way, a farmer who owns his cropland has a similar input cost as farmers who rent that same quality land.
But they probably won't find land with soil as fertile as what Starnes calls "Grandpa's brag patch." Some of Starnes' best MEY contest entries are from the fields surrounding his grandfather's home and the farm's original turkey houses. These fields have been no-tilled for 40 years with regular turkey litter applications.
No-tilling contributes to soybean efficiency at Circle S Ranch. A six-year study of conventional-till versus no-till soybeans at Iowa State University concluded in 2008 that soybean yields were not significantly different between the tillage systems. However, the input costs for no-till soybeans were $18 to $25 less per acre than for conventional tillage.
Starnes' success in raising soybeans for less than $4 per bushel in 2014 was a significant achievement. If prices trend lower next year, that ability will prove even more important for Starnes and his neighbors, country folk determined to survive and thrive.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
When it comes to growing cost-efficient soybeans, sometimes less is more. Harold Bunch, of B&B Farms, in Chowan County, N.C., recorded an entry of $3.94 per bushel in the 2013 Most Efficient Yield (MEY) contest with a fairly straightforward soybean-management program.
Bunch's contest entry included a yield of 79.5 bushels per acre for full-season dryland beans. But he kept his expenses in check by using fewer inputs compared to many producers.
Bunch planted his MEY contest entry of Pioneer P46T21R soybeans in 15-inch rows on May 1. Before planting, he chisel-plowed the field and ran a field cultivator. He also applied 1 quart of Prowl ($7 per acre) mixed with 60 gallons per acre of liquid 2-6-12 fertilizer ($66 per acre). These soybeans were planted in a rotation behind corn.
After the Roundup Ready beans reached 12 to 14 inches, Bunch applied glyphosate at a rate of 1 quart per acre ($3.75 per acre). He didn't use additional herbicides for postemergence control of pigweeds because he farms in an area without weeds resistant to glyphosate.
He used no fungicides or insecticides on the MEY entry. Pioneer P46T21R has good tolerance to frogeye leafspot, one of the most important soybean diseases in the Southeast.
"And, we had showers at the right time," Bunch concludes.
Dennis McCoy, DuPont Pioneer agronomist in North Carolina, agrees that keeping a management program simple is a pretty good strategy. Here are McCoy's suggestions for cost-efficient soybeans:
-- Choose varieties well-suited to your area and soils. Talk with your neighbors and other soybean growers in your area to see what varieties are performing well in local fields.
-- Plant on time. In most areas, soybeans planted early in the season will outyield beans planted late.
-- Fertilize based on soil tests. "I'm also learning that high-yield soybeans may benefit from additional nitrogen around flowering," McCoy said.
-- Consider a fungicide application for disease-susceptible varieties in high-yield environments. Frogeye leafspot and cercospora leaf blight are frequently serious problems in high-yield environments and can cause yield losses of 20%. Some varieties are bred with tolerance to these diseases, but plant pathologists recommend strobilurin fungicide applications for susceptible varieties, especially in wet and humid climates.
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