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Mississippi's Charles Coghlan: Profitable Southern dryland soybeans

Due to prolonged summertime drought, growing dryland soybeans profitably in the South has become more and more difficult. Yet through a combination of innovative technologies, one Mississippi Delta producer has turned an otherwise unprofitable venture into one that helps sustain farm profits.

“We usually cut five or six bushels per acre on some of this hot sand, but these beans we planted in early March cut over 30 bushels per acre, and if you plant early on good ground, you can make 50 or 60 bushels per acre,” says Charles Coghlan of Benoit, Miss.

Coghlan explains that the land he planted on March 8 last year is very sandy soil and generally unproductive; however, through the use of minimum tillage, Roundup Ready technology and planting varieties adapted to very early planting, he can now fight the droughts that plague so many in the South to turn a profit on marginal land.

“I only planted one variety on March 8, DP 4344 RR, which is an early Group IV. We were trying to catch the early rains that we get in May and June. Normally, July and August are very dry around here. We had an almost perfect June, and we had several rains in May, too.”

The corner stone of the plan is being able to plant very early so that the crop's flowering and pod-fill periods come during the normally rainy months of May and June.

Mississippi State University Extension soybean specialist Alan Blaine confirms Coghlan's idea that avoiding drought is the best option for dryland production in Mississippi. In fact, this practice is growing popular.

“Early-season soybean production has increased in acreage over the last several years due to grower success,” says Blaine. “The interest in early planting of earlier-maturing varieties has really changed the picture regarding soybean plantings. Earlier-maturing varieties commonly referred to as Group IVs have allowed growers to increase yields by avoiding late-summer weather patterns that are typically hot and dry. Although Group IVs are not drought-tolerant, this avoidance is the best option available.”

Coghlan says there may be potential drawbacks to planting very early, such as prolonged germination; however, he notes the soybeans came up successfully. “We've noticed that when you plant really early, when it is cool, the beans will lay there a lot longer than when it is warm, but they eventually all come up to a good stand.”

Blaine notes that soybeans will begin to germinate in soils 55 degrees Fahrenheit, but emergence will be slow. “Soybean seed germinate and emerge faster with soil temperatures of 68 to 86 degrees and 50 to 55 percent seed moisture,” says Blaine. “Soil temperatures of 55 degrees allow germination to begin, but emergence will be slow. Once temperatures reach 60 degrees, emergence should be fairly rapid.

“Plantings at this time may take 10 days to two weeks to emerge, but evidence shows this longer emergence period does not cancel the effect from the earlier planting,” adds Blaine.

Coghlan also notes other issues that concerned him, such as late frost and the soybeans growing tall enough to support a decent yield prior to flowering. These problems never materialized. “The early-planted beans did go through a light frost, but they made it. We were also concerned about their getting enough height on them before they started flowering, but that wasn't a problem either.”

Blaine explains that new varieties and earlier maturity groups have given Southern growers opportunities that they once did not have, as breeders have bred traits into adapted early-season soybean varieties that allow them to tolerate the earlier planting dates.

“Planting date recommendations once encouraged later plantings, but earlier maturity groups, temperature requirements for germination, and the potential increase in yields from earlier plantings have shown a need to change from what was once practiced,” he says. “A real opportunity exists to plant soybeans earlier than is traditional, and given soybeans' ability to handle cool weather, growers need to capitalize on this option by planting a portion of the soybean crop before cotton. For many growers, this could mean planting an entire soybean crop early.”

And that is exactly Coghlan's goal. By starting early, he finishes planting all his soybeans prior to planting his 3,000 acres of cotton; consequently, he spreads labor throughout the season, as his soybean harvest is also completed prior to his cotton harvest.

“Sometimes you think you've started early, and then you get a rain or two and then the next thing you know, you're behind. Planting this early last year enabled us to spread our labor out, so that the soybeans didn't interfere with our cotton either in planting or harvesting. We finished cutting all of our 3,000 acres of beans three weeks before we picked any cotton. And then we had time to prepare our bean ground for the upcoming season.”

Coghlan explains that after harvest he subsoils or rips some of his soybean ground and then runs a land plane. He then does not touch it until early spring when he applies a burndown herbicide. By not breaking the soil, he can get in the field to plant a lot earlier, and by using Roundup Ready soybeans he doesn't need to apply preplant herbicides, which also can slow them down.

“We use no preplant herbicides. We just burn down in late February. After planting, we usually make two applications of Roundup.

“We planted about 200 to 300 acres, most of our sand, at first. We had ripped it in the fall, run a land plane, burned it down in February and were ready to plant. It then rained, and we didn't get back in the field until about March 20. We then planted most of our crop, running every planter we had, two 30-inch row cotton planters, a soybean planter and a drill,” he says.

Coghlan says he sometimes plants no-till soybeans, but he prefers breaking the ground in the fall. “Sometimes if we haven't rutted the field up during the growing season, we will go no-till. But we feel like we get a little better germination when we work the ground in the fall. Plus running the ripper or the subsoiler helps with water penetration throughout the growing season,” he says.

Coghlan concludes that planting early is the most profitable method he has found for dryland soybean farming. “This is the most profitable way I can grow soybeans,” he says.

“For the dryland farmer, July and August normally are the driest months. So if you can get them in and get them up to catch the early rains, you've done well. I'm not going to tell a rice farmer, who irrigates and rotates, that this is a better way than his planting Group Vs. But for the dryland farmer who is trying to get the best utilization out of his labor and his equipment, this definitely makes a difference.”

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