Production Blog

Is Your Love for Corn Hurting Soybean Yields?

Pamela Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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Beans require a season-long approach to management if you really want them to shine. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico, photo illustration by Barry Falkner)

Moments of absolute clarity are so satisfying. I watched an entire crowd of farmers experience one at the Illinois Soybean Summit in February.

Kris Ehler, a farmer and agronomist for his Thomasboro, Illinois-based family seed company, Ehler Brothers, told the congregation (yes, I chose that word carefully) that the main reason growers are slow to realize yield gains in soybeans is they are obsessed with corn.

"Corn is the soybean's biggest obstacle. We love corn. We love growing it. It's sexy. Soybean should be more than a rotational crop," he proclaimed.

Insert a mic drop. If I have ever witnessed a room of people collectively squirm, nod and lower their heads all in one I'm guilty as sin movement, this was it. And I reiterate that we were attending a soybean meeting.

I've listened to countless farmers and agronomists give presentations on increasing soybean yields over the years. Ag journalists and publications got on the high yield soybean bandwagon when Kip Cullers burst onto the scene using what he'd learned in green bean production to set his first world record soybean yield in 2006 on his Purdy, Missouri, farm. Back then, rooms of farmers hungered to divine the recipes used by yield kings such as Cullers, so they could apply the same concoctions back home.

But there's something about getting down to the clod-kicking truth that delivers the best "aha" moments. And Ehler saying that farmers mostly miss the mark because they try to apply the same management practices used in corn to their bean production is what delivered the forehead smack.

Ehler is a self-proclaimed "bean dork" and an evangelist for early planting and creative use of inputs to push soybean yield boundaries. That doesn't mean he doesn't like growing corn. He's just bent on figuring out what makes beans different and using that knowledge to move the needle on yield.

Waiting for seed companies to bring yield gains isn't enough, he maintained. It's not that we haven't seen a lot of genetic gain through germplasm, he added. But ... "a half-bushel to three-tenths of a bushel-yield increase per year is not going to cut the mustard if we want to remain sustainable," Ehler said.

Dustin Bowling, a Missouri-based agronomist for AgriGold, likes to talk about treating the soybean like a factory and adjusting management practices to meet the biological needs of the soybean throughout the season. That starts with understanding how the crop harnesses light to fix carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Ultimately, the idea is to use the soybean's tendencies to gain the maximum return on investment -- yield is part of that equation.

You can find Ehler and Bowling and others discussing these thoughts in the recent DTN article "Manage Soybeans All Season Long." It covers many of the basics of how farmers and agronomists are unlocking soybean secrets. Read it here:….

Part of the strategy of positioning the soybean for success is timely planting -- or more specifically, early planting. Ehler is an advocate for pushing the plant to begin flowering before summer solstice (June 21) to take advantage of the most sunlight possible. He figures he gives up 4/10 to 5/10 of a bushel per day when planting after April 25.

He could be pushing up against that calendar date this year. While Ehler has a few beans in the ground, frequent rains have mostly kept planters stalled so far in 2022 in his area of east-central Illinois.

DTN Ag Meteorologist John Baranick said the forecast for the next week is below-normal temperatures, followed by some ups and down through early May. "There is a possibility of another cold event that could lead to some frosts for the northern Corn Belt," said Baranick.

Temperatures turn up for the last half of May and continue through the rest of the summer in Illinois, according to Baranick's long-term forecasts. The Mississippi River will likely be the dry line -- with regions to the west experiencing more heat and dryness through summer months than those to the East and Southeast. Long-range forecasts show all primary agricultural areas in the country (except for the eastern Seaboard) stand to be dry through July and August, he added.

Soybeans by nature are like a marathon runner that benefits from a well-timed gulp in August, when soybean water usage peaks and nutrients begin to move from the plant tissue into the seed.

These long-range forecasts indicate the need to understand soybean growth and development stages to adapt management practices and determine if and when additional inputs are prudent.

Soybean specialists from around the country have put together a primer on soybean growth stages at:…. The chart explores common myths and misconceptions about how the soybean grows and responds to challenges.

Watch Dustin Bowling present a webinar on managing the soybean factor for maximum output go here:…

Watch Kris Ehler's presentation at the Illinois Soybean Summit here:…. He covers why inoculants are important and how much real estate the seed has for seed treatments. He talks micronutrients and a host of other scenarios that separate soy management from corn.

Learn more about how Illinois farmers are pushing soybean yields through biology:…

Pamela Smith can be reached at

Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN


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