More Beans in the Bin

Pam Smith
By  Pam Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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Illinois farmer Aaron Rients and his faithful dog, Remi, head out to harvest the final soybean field of the 2015 season. USDA is predicting record national soybean yields this year. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- We considered soybeans something of a miracle when we first started planting them on our central Illinois farm. Anything that fixed its own nitrogen and required little tending was a welcome addition to the crop rotation.

I was in charge of germ testing these magic beans. I can still remember my father's watchful eye as I carefully placed rows of soybeans upon a dampened cloth that was then carefully rolled and placed inside a sealed mayonnaise jar. Officially called a "ragdoll" test, my jar occupied a special spot in our farmhouse kitchen that was neither too hot, nor too cold, but just right for germination.

Those practices seem centuries -- rather than decades -- away from tactics used by today's high yield soybean producer. This week DTN has been running a series of stories on growers that have made it a priority to push soybean yields to another level.

I noticed a couple of threads in interviewing these farmers and working through these stories. Soybeans are no longer just a crop to fit in between corn crops -- each is treated with the same attention to detail. High yield soybean growers set fertility goals and they are in those fields looking for potential issues. They call on outside consultants and agronomists to help them determine the best course of action.

I often hear criticism that yield contests are just about pouring on inputs. To that, every grower I interviewed maintained that it's not about the inputs as much as it is the timing of those inputs. Through their contest acres, they are able to learn what works and then weigh what pays and apply that to the remainder of their acres.

Weather remains the trump card. Management can still prevail, according to University of Illinois crop physiologist Fred Below. He notes that growers can mitigate the negative effects of adverse weather by starting with healthy soils and early season protection. Strong roots help relieve environmental stresses such as drought or heat.

"If I have my wish for soybean weather, it is warm and not too wet in the spring, but I really want a rain in August for top soybean yields," Below told me in an interview last year.

Many areas had just the opposite of Below's perfect conditions this year. In Illinois, it was wet early, we planted many fields late and those all-important fall rains didn't come. Many other areas of the Soybean Belt experienced similar challenges.

Yet, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent Crop Production Report has pegged this year's national soybean production at an all-time high of nearly 4 billion bushels, about 94 million bushels higher than last month's projections. The average yield nationwide is estimated at 48.3 bushels per acre compared to 47.8 bpa in 2014. Keep in mind the 47.8 bpa in 2014 was 3.8 bushels above the previous records of 44.0 bpa, achieved in 2010 and 2013.

State records for the 2015 crop are already starting to come in and we'll be reporting on those as we learn more details.

The soybean may not be as carefree as we once thought, but those willing to make the management moves are taking yields to new levels.

Pamela Smith can be reached at

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Pam Smith