Trial and Error

High-yield soybean growers take agronomic risks.

Arkansas farmer Matt Miles (right) and his son, Layne (left), work with consultant Robb Dedman (center) to navigate the winding row to consistent high soybean yields, Image by Charles Johnson

Expect some twists, turns and bumps in the road when shooting for high soybean yields. Matt Miles has seen his McGehee, Arkansas, plots consistently top 100 bushels per acre since 2013. But, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t encountered some curves along the way--and learned from them.

“The road to success is always under construction. Our job is to get around that. We’ve tried a lot of things that didn’t give us an economic return, but profit is always our goal with everything we do,” Miles says. For example, he says figuring out what foliar products work where he farms has been an ongoing challenge.

Studying the practices of other high-yield growers is interesting, but Miles firmly believes agronomic tweaks must be tried at home. Tests from even a few miles away don’t interest him.

“The things they do in the Midwest or Georgia don’t seem to work in the Delta. A product they say gets a 10-bushel increase may get zero here. Is it nighttime temperatures that are to blame? Humidity? Proximity to the Mississippi River? Something makes a difference,” he says.

HOMEWORK TIME. Postseason evaluation of on-farm tests of products and varieties are used to map out a plan each year. And, the entire farm-management team gets involved. The team includes Miles, his wife, Sherrie Kay Miles, son, Layne Miles, farm manager, Billy Garner, and crop consultant Robb Dedman.

“People see the success we’re having here and wonder how we do that year after year, but they may not see what happens from November to March doing the homework that’s necessary. We do a lot of research on things ranging from foliar materials to varieties to biologicals,” Dedman says.

“We go through that data and then go through it again. We double-check to make sure we’re doing the right thing based on how it performed in our field tests.”

SHARED VISION. The team approach takes the responsibility off the shoulders of one individual if a practice doesn’t pan out, Miles says.

“We tried a biological material on 300 acres. We spent a lot on that, and we lost it. So, we backed up and tried it on 80 to 100 acres. Then, if that looks good, we’ll go back to 300 acres and then go from there. The thing is, it’s going to cost you to learn,” Miles says.

PUT VARIETIES ON TEST. “We do our own variety testing here. The silver bullet is having the right variety on the right acre. Just because a variety works on a neighbor’s farm doesn’t mean it’ll work here with our practices.

“We’ve learned there are workhorse varieties and racehorse varieties. We like to try the racehorses, because they’ll make the high yields we’re after. Every plot gets entered into a book, so when we want to know how something did, we can find out.”

FOLIAR FINESSE. “The golden question right now is, ‘Are foliar fertilizers working?’ We’re having serious problems with biologicals working, and that may be because we put a ton and half per acre of chicken litter out. In the Delta, farmers have trouble getting biological nutrient products to work,” Miles explains.

“When we put out foliar fertilizer, the price per unit is substantially higher than putting it in the soil. Are foliars at that price per unit beneficial to us, or is it better to front-load a crop? It’s that kind of question we’re trying to answer,” Dedman says.

It’s part of the high-yield process, Miles thinks. “We’ve spent a lot of money on things that didn’t work. It has to be a multiyear test. One year won’t tell us what we need to know,” Miles says.

Reducing crop stress is another key to pushing yields higher. “It’s technique, and it’s management,” Dedman says. “It’s timeliness of irrigation to moderate meteorological stress. It’s eliminating every possible stress, whether it’s weeds, insects, diseases or fertility.”

For example, they mostly run irrigation units at night because it cools the crop canopy, which reduces stress. They look at total insect pressure when determining thresholds to trigger insecticide application decisions rather than individual pest decisions. They fight stress with weekly tissue samples in soybeans, cotton and corn on the 9,000 acres they are farming this year.

“That gives us a snapshot every week. But, we have to personally look at the fields, too, and know what’s going on,” Miles says. “We had two fields 18 miles apart tissue-test low on sulfur. I started panicking. Then, sulfur was fine in the next sample. So, we can’t use tissue-testing as a Bible. But, if sulfur had come in low again, we’d have been doing something for it.”

PUSH THE ENVELOPE. A decade ago, Miles grew soybeans averaging 45 to 50 bushels per acre like most farmers in the area. He got serious about boosting bean yields when cotton prices stagnated, and soybeans topped $10 per bushel.

The current 105- to 108-bushel-per-acre yields Miles experiences in high-yield plots would excite most farmers, but there’s more potential left to be realized, he believes.

His average fields top out at slightly more than 80 bushels per acre, and pulling the yield up on those fields is high on his bucket list.

“Our goal is to get to 120 bushels on the top-yielding beans,” Miles says. “And, we’re going to eventually hit it. My son, Layne, is three times the farmer I was when I started, and he’s going to have a lot of new agronomic technology available to do it,” he says.


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