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Laws: Revolutionary idea becomes commonplace

Driving along U.S. Highway 61 north of Leland, Miss., last March, I spotted a grower planting soybeans. Wondering if that wasn’t taking the trend toward earlier planting a little too far, I stopped and took some photos.

The farmer got off the tractor and told me he was trying to get the field planted because rain was in the forecast. He was concerned that if he didn’t get the seed in the ground he would be at least a week later planting.

What a difference 25 years can make. One of the first events I covered for Delta Farm Press was the 1981 Mississippi Agricultural Consultants Association annual meeting in Jackson. Several crop experts spoke, but the one I remember most was Brad Waddle, professor of agronomy at the University of Arkansas.

Waddle said many cotton farmers were in a perpetual rush in the spring, trying to plant their cotton in late April so they could turn their full attention to soybeans, which often accounted for a larger share of their acreage.

Waddle suggested farmers should consider planting soybeans first and then turn their full attention to cotton. Seeding the latter in May, when weather conditions were generally more favorable, would allow cotton to grow off better, he said.

At the time, the consultants at the meeting probably thought Waddle’s was novel idea but that few of their farmers would ever try it.

Ten years or so later, Larry Heatherly, agronomist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service at Stoneville, Miss., began working with Lanny Ashlock and Glenn Bowers, researchers at Texas A&M University, on the early soybean planting system.

Under the ESPS system, farmers were encouraged to plant Group 4 and early Group 5 soybeans in a stale seedbed in early April. Reduced tillage allowed them to plant without having to wait until they could disk their soils. They also avoided droughts that had clobbered Southern yields for years.

Farmers didn’t switch to ESPS overnight, but with Heatherly, Ashlock (later Extension specialist in Arkansas), Alan Blaine (Extension soybean specialist in Mississippi) and others preaching its benefits, producers began planting more acres in early April.

The practice has now become so widespread that many Mid-South soybean fields are planted ahead of cotton. And ESPS appears to be spreading into the Midwest where growers in states like Indiana are trying it to avoid planting delays from late spring rains.

What was a visionary recommendation by Waddle, who has retired, now seems like it should have been intuitive. In an interview last December for the Researchers Hall of Fame, Heatherly said he wondered why it took so long to make the transformation.

The important thing is that many farmers who were harvesting yields in the 20s are now in the 40s. Given the uphill battle they appear to face in passing a new farm bill, growers may need more experts like Brad Waddle and Larry Heatherly to show them new ways.

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