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Beds may help raise soybean yields

It’s bound to happen sooner or later. After two years of excruciating drought, Mid-South farmers may be due a wet summer, one in which it rains at least once during the week and again on Sunday whether you need it or not.

When that happens, Trey Koger figures, planting soybeans on raised beds will result in even higher yields than he obtained in a study comparing the practice with planting them on flat ground when conditions were dry.

Planting soybeans in narrow rows (10-inch to 20-inch) or twin rows on raised beds could also significantly increase yields above planting them in wide rows (40-inch), Koger told growers attending the Rice/Soybean Production session at the Delta Ag Expo in Cleveland, Miss.

It was a swan song of sorts for Koger, who until recently had been an agronomist with the USDA-ARS Soybean Production Research Unit at Stoneville, Miss. Late last year, he moved “across the tracks” from USDA to become cotton weed scientist/agronomist with the Delta Research and Extension Center.

Koger, a native of Belzoni, Miss., reported on the soybean research projects he and other Agricultural Research Service scientists have been conducting at Stoneville and other Mid-South locations.

For openers, researchers have found that planting soybeans on raised beds increased yields by 5 to 7 bushels above soybeans planted on flat ground in flood-irrigated situations.

In small plot tests, soybeans planted on a 40-inch hipped bed produced an average of 86 bushels an acre compared to 84 bushels an acre for beans planted on 80-inch wide beds and 79 bushels for beans planted flat.

When the soybeans weren’t flooded, the 40-inch hipped bed plantings produced an average of 89 bushels per acre versus 84 bushels per acre for the 80-inch wide beds and 82 bushels for soybeans planted flat. Koger said the increases would have meant another $11 to $38 per bushel with $6 per bushel soybeans.

“The benefits of planting on raised beds in wet years should be larger than 5 to 7 bushels an acre because we saw some of those even in the presence of no imposed flood in an extremely dry year,” he said.

Koger said he and his fellow researchers have found little yield difference between narrow rows (10-inch to 20-inch spacings) and twin-rows (plantings of two 10-inch rows based on a 40-inch center) when the drainage system is equal; i.e., planted on 80-inch wide beds.

But the narrow and twin-rows do out-yield the wide rows (planted 40 inches apart on 80-inch beds by an average of 9 percent or 7 to 8 bushels per acre even when the seeding rates are roughly the same.

Earlier research involving the then-new twin-row planters indicated that it might not be necessary to increase seeding rates for those even though planter manufacturers had suggested farmers increase seeding rates by 20 percent.

“We saw very little yield difference between 120,000 plants per acre and 140,000 plants per acre in the 10-inch and 20-inch narrow row spacings and the twin-row system or in the different seeding rates for the 40-inch wide row plantings,” said Koger. “We found we could reduce seeding rates even further and not decrease yields.”

Part of the reason for the increase in the closer row spacings is that the plants produce more pods per acre. “Twin rows produced, on average, five more pods per plant,” says Koger. “That may not seem like much, but it adds up to more than a half-million more pods an acre in the twin-row system versus the number of pods in the single-row.”

He and Dan Poston, Extension soybean specialist at the Delta Research and Extension Center, believe most of the increased yield is due to light interception. “You get twice as much sunlight on the plants in a twin row or narrow row as you do with a single row,” says Koger.

The higher yields with narrow or twin rows on raised beds should offset the costs associated with putting up the beds, especially in poorly drained soils such as the heavy clays that dot the Mid-South.

The researchers have also found that farmers who are planting 90,000 to 100,000 plans in Maturity Group 4 and 5 varieties are on target for making optimum yields. If they try Maturity Group 3 soybeans, 120,000 to 140,000 plants per acre are most profitable.

“Our current recommendations have been based on the old production system,” he said. “Those are 100,000 to 130,000 plants per acre for narrow rows and 70,000 to 100,000 plants per acre for wide rows.”

Higher seed costs have led researchers to take another look at those recommendations, and they’re finding that soybean yields don’t increase much when they increase seeding rates past 90,000 to 100,000 plants per acre for Groups 4 and 5 and 130,000 to 140,000 per acre for Group 3s.

When you look at returns over seed costs, growers begin facing losses when the seeding rates goes beyond those levels for the different maturity groups. (Returns for Group 4 beans, for example, can drop nearly $40 an acre as producers keep increasing seeding rates.)


Biofuel facilities under way in Louisiana

Louisiana’s Gov. Kathleen Blanco and other officials in the Mermentau, La., area recently joined a Massachusetts company in a groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremony recently for two facilities that will use agricultural wastes to make ethanol.

Celunol Corp., a privately held biofuels technology development company based in Cambridge, Mass., will operate both facilities — one a demonstration-scale facility and the other, a pilot plant for research and development.

The demonstration facility will convert cellulose into ethanol when it is finished by year’s end. Its patented process will use microorganisms and specialty enzymes to convert up to 95 percent of the sugars in biomass feedstock into ethanol.

The plant will have a rated design capacity of 1.4 million gallons of ethanol per year, the company said.

The groundbreaking was for a plant that will use bagasse, the byproduct of sugar production, as its fuel, which will be provided by the Cajun Cooperative at New Iberia, La.

“We’ve always had extra bagasse, and it’s a problem because we’ve got to pay to get rid of it,” said Anthony Judice, a sugarcane farmer and co-op vice president.

Judice said some bagasse can be used as fuel at the sugar mill, but the highly efficient boiler system at the co-op’s mill limits how much bagasse can be used, leaving 30,000 to 40,000 tons of the waste for disposal annually.

In addition, the cooperative will grow 15 acres of sugarcane, with seed provided by the LSU AgCenter, which will be used at the ethanol plant for experimentation, according to cooperative board member Ricky Judice.

Paul Coreil, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for extension, said the AgCenter is working to increase agricultural production of renewable energy sources.

“We’re bullish on renewable energy in Louisiana,” Coreil said. “This state has the soil, climate and the moisture for this.”

Louisiana farmers are already benefiting from the ethanol production, he said, with corn farmers in Louisiana expected to double their acreage from last year.

Most ethanol produced in the United States now is from grain, primarily corn. Cellulosic ethanol is made by breaking down the basic plant component, cellulose, to make fuel.

Celunol has licensed its technology to a Japanese company to make ethanol from wood products.

Peter Rein, LSU AgCenter professor at the Audubon Sugar Institute, said cellulosic ethanol is a proven technology. “The question is can you do it and make a profit,” Rein said.

Carlos Riva, Celunol president, said that’s what the demonstration project will do. “We expect that the demonstration facility we are constructing will validate the economics of this process on a much larger scale,” Riva said. “The pilot plant we have inaugurated here illustrates the technical feasibility of producing ethanol on a high-yield basis from lost-cost crops and agricultural residues.”

Also at the ceremony the company cut a ribbon signifying the completion of a pilot plant for research and development, which will use a wide variety of feedstocks, including grasses, sugarcane and woodchips.

“These two milestones mark a significant step forward for Louisiana and our nation,” Blanco said.

The governor said the technology could benefit the sugarcane industry the same way increased demand for corn benefited farmers in the Midwest.

Doug Faulkner, deputy undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the plant is a step to developing technologies that will lessen dependence on foreign petroleum.

Wind power has quadrupled in the United States, and the amount of American-produced ethanol has gone from 1.6 billion gallons in 2000 to more than 5 billion gallons in 2006. Facilities to produce an additional 6 billion gallons are under construction.

Renewable energy is the biggest chance for the creation of wealth in the U.S. farming economy, Faulkner said. “It’s a renaissance for rural America,” he said.

Corn Growers Consider Market-based Target Price

The National Corn Growers Association met Wednesday to discuss a farm bill proposal similar to the revenue-based safety net proposed earlier this year by USDA Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns, except for two differences: NCGA would use a market-based target price instead of a fixed price in their safety net; and second, USDA's revenue countercycical is a national trigger, while NCGA's plan would be based on county revenues.

"Our position has changed considerably, moving away from a fixed target price to a moving market price," says Steve Pigg, Bushnell, Ill., policy committee chairman.

The NCGA proposal, if adopted during Saturday's voting session, would use a moving price that enables farmers to guarantee a larger revenue per acre. For example, if USDA's proposal used a fixed target price of $2.34 per bushel, that price times 150 bushels per acre would guarantee $351 per acre; using a moving price based on Chicago Board of Trade spring prices, farmers could potentially guarantee much higher revenues — nearly double based on today's prices ($4 x 150 bushels).

The NCGA open forum meeting took place at the opening of the 2007 Commodity Classic this week in Tampa, FL held in conjunction with the American Soybean Association and, for the first time, the National Association of Wheat Growers.

The NCGA proposal  would authorize significant changes in farm support programs to better protect producers against rising costs of production, crop losses and volatile comodity prices.  The proposal includes direct payments and Revenue Counter Cyclical Program, a complimentary program modeled after group risk income protection insurance, which compensates producers when a crop's actual county revenue per acre falls below the expected county revenue per acre.

Payments would be based on planted acres, rather than base acres. "When realized actual county revenue per acre is less than expected revenue per acre, producers are compensated for the difference," explains Pigg.

RCCP is designed to compliment federal crop insurance and minimize overlapping coverage. According to NCGA it would compensate for both significant area and individual crop losses — a chronic complaint with today's farm bill program. "RCCP would reduce inequities in support when low prices are accompanied by crop shortfalls," he says.

The proposal would also integrate individual crop insurance, and include a recourse marketing loan program.

"The big key is integrating with crop insurance," says Pigg. "If there's a revenue countercyclical payment and you also have insurance, they would deduct the payment out of your insurance payment. If you take the price risk out of those crop insurance policies and all they have is the yield risk, it takes the cost of those insurance products way down."

Stenholm: Adjusted Gross Income Test Tough to Implement

Charlie Stenholm was an influential voice for agriculture in Congress from 1979 to 2005. And he's still making noise on Capitol Hill as a consultant and lobbyist for the livestock industry, having left office nearly two years ago.

These days he works as a lobbyist for the livestock industry, where he's hearing more and more grumblings over high priced feedstocks. And despite positive reviews for USDA's farm bill proposal, he sees conflict ahead.

"This is the most challenging farm bill I've ever been involved in," says the former ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, speaking at a Bayer media event at the Commodity Classic in Tampa, Fla.

Stenholm says one of the greatest challenges will be trying to implement a payment limit like the kind proposed in USDA's plan, unveiled earlier this month. Under USDA's plan, producers with annual Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) of $200,000 or more would not be eligible for commodity payments. Farmers currently abide by the three entity rule as part of the 2002 Farm Bill and can use the rule to establish corporations and other entities, which allow the amount of payments received to exceed statutory limits. USDA's proposals eliminate the three-entity rule and ties payments to an individual. USDA's plan sets the subsidy payment limit for individuals at a total of $360,000.

"The adjustable gross income idea will be tough to administer, but it will get a lot of play," predicts Stenholm. "It's one of those things the urban press, particularly Wall Street Journal, really loves."

While he doesn't agree with the $200,000 AGI plan, Stenholm does believe farmers should get serious about some kind of payment limitation in the future. "We've winked and nodded to each other long enough, now we've got to do something. There has to be changes, but I don't know if the adjusted gross income idea is the way to go.

"For years, we've dealt with the payment limitation issue," he adds. "I don't believe anyone should be limited to how big you should get – that's called efficiency. But I do believe there is a limit to how much you should be subsidized."

Stenholm knows a little something about farm policy. Throughout his career he worked with five presidents, eight ag secretaries, and six house ag committee chairmen – most recently with Republican Larry Combest to craft the 2002 Farm Bill.

"It never made any difference to me after an election whether you had an R or D behind your name, if you had a good idea, let's sit down and work on it," he says. "Unfortunately, we've gotten away from that."