Flint on Crops: We Can Reduce Soybean Seed Cost – Commentary

    One of the most cherished talents among people is the ability to influence opinions and ideas. The fact that ideas among farmers have changed little is demonstrated as they continue to use methods that would be recognized by their grandfathers.

    There have been great improvements, but some ideas such as tillage practices, nitrogen rates, seeding rates, insect management techniques, and others may “bend” but basic philosophies have changed little through the years.

    Possibly the most overused quotation of all time is generally credited to either Albert Einstein or Benjamin Franklin that “insanity is the idea of doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result”. This is true of many things including the methods we use in agriculture.

    I recall a soybean producer who made a talk at a meeting I attended around 1975 who told the audience that he had achieved soybean yields equal to or higher than other growers with plant populations very similar to those preferred in cotton. He was planting around forty thousand seed per acre and hoping to achieve a population of around eighty percent of that number.

    His statements created quite a controversy but few if any producers adopted his methods. He was ahead of his time because he was growing a crop that was secondary at that time with methods common to a primary crop like cotton.

    In his system each plant had more space to expand roots and branches, to flower and set pods, and to harvest sunlight more efficiently. Insects and diseases were lesser problems since neither of them like sunlight, and stresses that trigger both insects and disease problems are reduced.

    These days we commonly hear some of the soybean yield record holders talking about seeding rates at or above 200,000 per acre while the norm for our region is probably in the 140,000 to 160,000 range. This translates to around 8 seed per foot in 30 inch rows and leads to more insects, more disease, reduced drought tolerance, increased lodging, and in some cases lower quality since seed deterioration is more likely.

    A two year study we just completed on a silty clay loam soil showed that in both 2015 which was dry and in 2016 with good rainfall the yields were essentially flat from 70,000 all the way to 170,000 seed per acre in 30 inch rows. Yields in 2015 were 22 to 24 bushels per acre and in 2016 they were much better at 64 to 68 bushels.

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    These seeding rates produced actual populations ranging from below 50,000 to above 150,000 per acre or from three to 9 plants per foot of row. This study was very interesting in that we had both extremes of rainfall on the same spot in the same field in two consecutive years, planted and harvested by the same people and the same equipment. Other soil types may show different results but my guess is they won’t.

    The “take home message” from this is that under this set of parameters we could have reduced seeding rate enough that the seed for every fourth would have been free. It also suggests that in situations where emergence is poor but fairly uniform we can expect to achieve near-maximum yields at populations of 50,000 per acre or possibly even less.

    Seed cost per acre can be reduced by 25 percent or more depending upon how courageous you are. There are side issues such as canopy closure, the threat of stem girdling by alfalfa hoppers, and others, but we deal with these challenges every year anyway.

    This is just food for thought, along with all the other food around these days. Merry Christmas and thanks for your time.

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