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Corn+Soybean Digest

Checkerboard Beans

Nebraskan makes two planter passes and picks up 3 bu/acre You can tell if the motorist ahead of you is a farmer or not by how he or she drives by one of Douglas Nelson's soybean fields, especially during the early part of the growing season.

If the car zooms on down the road, it's almost certainly a city dweller. But if the brake lights come on to slow down, it's a sure bet a farmer is passing through.

The field catching his or her attention north of Wayne, NE, looks reminiscent of the check-row corn planting of former days. All the rows are crisscrossed, making the field look somewhat like a giant green checkerboard.

Nelson's 2,000 acres of mostly irrigated soybeans normally average about 50 bu/acre. Depending on the year and how heavy and frequent he thinks the rains will be, he plants from 30% to 75% of his beans in 30"-wide crisscross rows. On average, he plants 1,000 acres that way per year.

After he plants in one direction at 70% of his usual single-pass planting rate, he goes through the field at a 15-20 angle, again socking seed in at a 70%-of-normal rate. Total planting rate ranges from 200,000 to 230,000 seeds/acre. He always uses the same variety to ensure even maturity, but says it would be easy to plant two different varieties this way.

The idea for crisscrossing rows came to Nelson years ago when he noticed what happened at the end rows where the planter had been dropped too soon or kept in the ground a little too long. This resulted in a crisscrossing of rows at an angle to one another. He saw "quite a difference in how the soil was anchored and the amount of runoff" compared to the rest of the field, even on no-till ground.

The next year, he tried it on an entire erosion- prone field and liked how the extra rows at an angle held the soil better than rows going only one direction.

"I crisscross rows wherever I have erosion concerns," says Nelson. "This is a real benefit if we get a heavy rain, since the runoff water has to intersect a downhill row no matter which direction it decides to run."

Crisscrossing soybean rows has other advantages, according to Nelson.

"It gives me the effect of drilling without quite the expense of owning a drill while still achieving the seed placement of a planter," he says. "So, it's a way of cutting some cost corners."

Nelson plants with a 24-row planter that lets him cover ground fast. While two field passes are needed, his 60' planter gets the job done in about the same time as would a 15' or 20' no-till drill making a single pass, he says. His only additional expense is for a little more fuel and seed.

Even in no-till situations, Nelson likes to crisscross if conditions call for it. That's because he's often seen erosion in wheel track areas that get compacted during planting and spraying. The traffic breaks up the residue so it isn't attached to the soil anymore. That leaves the underlying soil subject to erosion as the residue is washed away. Crisscross planting provides some protection.

Nelson's experience is that his crisscross soybeans almost always perform better than single-pass beans in later plantings.

"Some years the slightly thicker stand of crisscrossed beans intercepts enough sunlight to make extra yield," he says. "Other years there's not a lot of difference.

"Overall," Nelson says, "just from the improvement in soil-holding ability, our yield checks show we generally pick up three extra bushels an acre with the crisscross soybeans. In some we pick up even more yield. That's enough to pay for the extra seed, time and fuel. Meanwhile, the crisscross rows are helping control erosion."

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