Five years ago, Arkansas grain grower Jason Smith tried growing conventional soybeans on his irrigated land. He has never looked back.
"We originally started growing conventional soybeans as a way to save money on seed costs," said the Watson, Arkansas, grower. "Seed for herbicide-resistant soybeans was becoming more expensive every year, and we were looking for a way to get around that cost."
Smith's heavy clay soils that break into pellets resembling buckshot upon drying can be unforgiving. It is flat rice ground that doesn't typically pump out soybean yields like the area's traditional cotton ground. Weather conditions have also been erratic -- a crop can be lost from too much rain, or Smith might water one day and get a 3-inch frog strangler the next. All of those conditions factor into his reasoning behind moving to conventional seed in an effort to control soybean input costs.
"We average 57 bushels per acre across our farm," he said. "However, in 2014, we averaged 83.96 bpa on a 17-acre BASF yield-contest field." This field set and still holds the yield record for conventional soybeans in Arkansas. BASF innovation specialist Brad Koen helped Smith with the recommendations on the field.
Smith also relies on his crop consultant, Rick Deviney, to help him manage his conventional soybeans. "Producing conventional soybeans is not harder than producing transgenic soybeans," Deviney said. "Farming without glyphosate is still just farming. It goes back to the basics of starting clean, overlapping herbicides and pulling the trigger on time when the residuals break. Any poor decision or late action costs yield in either production system."
Smith first tried conventional soybeans five years ago on just 40 acres. He gradually increased the conventional soybean acreage each year until 2014, when he farmed 100% conventional soybeans, which he did again in 2015.
Conventional soybean seed costs Smith $70 to $80 less per acre than herbicide-resistant soybeans. Even with $10 per bushel worth of seed treatments, he's money ahead.
"On 2,200 acres of soybeans, that can add up to $100,000 worth of savings each season," Smith said. "It's hard to lose money if you don't spend it."
Smith likes to grow mainly Group IV soybeans because he likes an indeterminate soybean variety. However, he still plants some Group V soybeans behind dryland wheat. Most of his conventional soybeans have been university-bred varieties. He has been growing two varieties from University of Arkansas, one from University of Missouri and a commercial variety, Armor 49C3.
Except for not applying Roundup or Liberty over the top of his soybeans, Smith does the same exact same thing for weed control as growers who raise herbicide-resistant soybeans. "I burn down early, and I use a residual at planting," he explained. "Our program consists of burning down with something like Roundup/2,4-D or Roundup/dicamba, or using a fall burndown residual like Valor or Sharpen. We use a pre-emerge herbicide and some contact broadleaf herbicide at planting.
"The only difference I would have in a LibertyLink or a Roundup program would be that in my next trip over the top, I substitute something like a generic Select or Poast Plus for Roundup or Liberty. Then I use the same broadleaf chemicals that other growers use over the top like Reflex and Dual, which I apply with my John Deere 4630 high-clearance sprayer.
"The biggest difference in farming conventional soybeans instead of herbicide-resistant beans is that I have to start clean. I can't afford to have any weeds when we begin planting."
Smith's soybean fields are as clean as his neighbors' herbicide-resistant soybean fields, and he basically only makes two trips over the field.
"I have one trip on them at planting with a lot of pre-emerge and one more trip over the top," he said. "We do a little bit of plowing, too. We spray behind the plowing; we don't have any trouble keeping fields clean.
"Timeliness is the key. I have a large, high-clearance sprayer, and when we are planting, I try to get out in front of the planter and spray before the seed goes down. If it rains, and I don't get a field sprayed at planting, it's going to cost me to get it cleaned up. Timing is everything."
Oftentimes, when he later sprays over the top, Smith's soybean fields are already clean of weeds; he is just overlapping residuals. The main weed he looks for over the top is red rice.
"Earlier in the year, I also want to overlap my pre-emerge herbicides so I don't have to worry about pigweeds or other weeds coming up later in the year," he added. "Usually, the only things that we have to deal with coming back up later on in the year are coffee bean (also known as sicklepod) and a few morning glories around field edges. I'll hit those with Ultra Blazer, which is no different than what you would do in a Roundup field."
Additionally, Smith is constantly rotating his soybeans with his other crops. He views crop rotation from the standpoint of doing what is best for the land and improving weed control.
"I push a consistent rotation program because I know how beneficial it is for the soil," he explained.
"My marketer pushes to rotate what is best for the bottom line, but you have to find a happy medium. Our typical rotation includes some farms one year in rice and two years of soybeans. Sometimes, we are one in and one out. I have some farms that are in corn one year, soybeans the next, and then Clearfield rice, and then back to soybeans.
"Rotation also helps me out with my weed control, because I can use different herbicide classes in the different crops. I look at rotation from an agronomic standpoint and not by a market view, but sometimes I can't ignore market pricing opportunities."
MAKING THE SWITCH
Smith recommends growers who are interested in growing conventional soybeans instead of herbicide-tolerant varieties start with a small, conventional acreage. Growers should also make sure they are able to spray herbicides on time, every time, since timeliness is key.
"You can't afford to get behind in a conventional soybean system," he said. "It's the same with rice. If you get behind in a conventional rice system, you are going to be behind for the rest of the season. You will end up spending money all year long trying to clean up the mess. Approach conventional soybeans the same way you would conventional rice. Get in your soybean fields before weed problems such as pigweed appear.
"Additionally, study your variety options; only a few conventional varieties are available," he added. "However, the University of Missouri, Mississippi State University and the University of Arkansas have several new conventional soybean lines in the pipeline."
Smith's tips for success include the following:
1. Address weed problems early, and keep fields clean.
2. Use overlapping, residual weed-control programs.
3. Study conventional-variety options. Several new conventional lines are in the pipeline.
The United Soybean Board has set the ambitious goal of reaching a 60-bushel-per-acre national average by 2025. Many U.S. soybean growers have already surpassed that milestone and set their sights on reaching 100-bushel yields. In this seven-part series, DTN/The Progressive Farmer looks at some of these top producers and their practices. This is the fifth story in the series.
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