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Soybeans after hay: A winning combo

Photos courtesy of Nathan Cooke Nathan Crooke and Joe Dise
SOYBEAN CHAMP: Nathan Crooke (right) grew a record-breaking soybean yield on one of his farms in Bucks County, Pa. His custom operator, Joe Dise, harvested the plot.
Nathan Crooke grew 112 bushels per acre, an all-time record in the Pennsylvania Soybean Yield Contest.

Hay is king at Windybush Hay Farms in Bucks County, Pa. But farm owner Nathan Crooke has found that with the right number of inputs, soybeans can grow some impressive pods after hay.

Crooke scored what is believed to be the highest soybean yield recorded in the 28-year history of the Pennsylvania Soybean Yield Contest: 112.43 bushels per acre of Channel 2918Xtend. Two other growers also topped the 100-bushel mark, but Crooke was the only one to grow more than 110 bushels per acre.

Participating growers must grow a minimum 5 acres of soybeans to participate in the contest and submit a 1.25-acre area for evaluation. Samples must be harvested with full header width, skipping two header widths in the field between passes.

For his win, Crooke won a trip to the upcoming Commodity Classic in New Orleans.

Cooke’s home farm is only 47 acres, but he and his two full-time and five part-time employees farm more than 1,800 acres mostly in Bucks County, just north of Philadelphia. He grows about 1,200 acres of mulch hay for mushroom farms, another 400 acres of “horse-quality” hay and 200 acres of wheat.

This year’s soybean plot was in Tyler State Park, which leases more than 1,000 acres of cropland to local farmers. The plot was in hay for 25 years, and Crooke wanted to rotate out of hay to alleviate perennial weed pressure. With soybeans fetching good prices, the timing was good.

“We were kind of waiting for an opportunity, and the market forces gave us the opportunity to afford to put all the inputs in to turn that ground around and grow soybeans,” Crooke says.

“It had really low fertility,” he says of the plot. “I don’t usually fertilize that ground for the hay, and so it needed 2 tons of lime — the pH was 5.7 — low phosphorus, low potassium numbers, very low calcium. When we saw $14 soybeans, we decided to try.”

Crooke is an independent Channel seed dealer. His Channel2918 Xtend variety was planted April 28 in a 130-acre plot using a John Deere 750 10-foot drill on 7.5-inch rows. He used a two-pass herbicide program and fungicide application.

Crooke says that he didn’t even know what part of the plot he was going to harvest for the contest until the night before harvest. He checked soil types and found an area that had better-draining soils and was on a slight slope, a spot where hay had historically grown the best.

Mother Nature gets a lot of the credit for his great yield, he says. After the beans were planted in late April, the plot didn’t see any rain until late May. This helped because the soils hold a lot of water and can take a long time to dry out once it rains.

“God gave us all the rain we needed this year in July and August,” Crooke says. “ I think we had 8 inches of rain in August, 5 inches of rain in July and even more rain from a hurricane in September.”

But it wasn’t just Mother Nature. Crooke also credits his timely application of fungicide — applied at R1 — and the organic nitrogen left behind from the previous hay crop.

While he aimed for a 175,000 plant population, it topped out at 150,000.

Growing for the future

Crooke’s father started the farm in 1980, and it’s been growing ever since.

When Crooke moved back to the farm in 2012, he started rotating 50 to 60 acres per year into soybeans and wheat. He also became an independent Channel seed dealer.

While he hasn’t thrown corn in the rotation yet, that might be an option soon. This winter, he’s building a brand-new 10,000-bushel GSI storage unit on the farm that will be used, at least initially, to store wheat. But he has much bigger plans if things go well, including two more bins and perhaps even a scale since he already does a lot of trucking for other farmers.

“We’ve preserved enough ground that there’s going to be farmers here for a long time,” Crooke says.

“We got a lot of ex-dairy farmers that are growing grain now but don’t have the infrastructure to do it, and that’s where we come in and do the trucking for them. But we’re hoping that this system can kind of be a middle for the grain and get harvest wrapped a little quicker here.”

view of soybean harvest from combine

Crooke says that he didn’t even know what part of the plot he was going to harvest for the contest until the night before harvest. He checked soil types and found an area that had better-draining soils and was on a slight slope, a spot where hay had historically grown the best.

All of Crooke’s soybeans get trucked to Newark, N.J., about a 72-mile drive, where it gets shipped out of the country through DeLong Co.

Crooke has two daughters, ages 10 and 8, and he farms with his mother. His father died in 2016, and his brother has a farm 2 miles away from the home farm.

He also has a landscape mulch operation that sells 11,000 yards of black and brown mulch per year, and mushroom soil. In 2019 and 2020, he ventured into small-scale cannabidiol hemp, growing about 4 acres that goes mostly for home lotions and soaps.

Other soybean winners

Here’s a list of the other regional winners from the Pennsylvania contest, along with brief descriptions of their growing practices:

Eric Meyers, Mercersburg, 84.11 bushels. Planted Pioneer P42A96X beans after corn with a no-till corn planter on 30-inch rows on April 28. He used a two-pass herbicide program and applied a fungicide and an insecticide. After harvest, he followed up planting wheat for grain.

Daryl Alger, Lebanon, 105.98 bushels. Planted Stine Seed 37EC20 on April 8 after corn using minimum tillage with a planter on 20-inch rows. Alger applied a fungicide and an insecticide. He planned to follow up planting wheat or rye.

Raymond (Jerry) Martin, Wellsboro, 73.34 bushels. Planted Pioneer P26A61X beans after corn with a no-till drill on 15-inch rows on April 28. He used a two-pass herbicide program and applied a fungicide and an insecticide. He followed up after harvest planting wheat.

Henry Sniezek, New Castle, 108.14 bushels. Planted Seed Consultants SC7341E beans after corn using tillage with a planter on 30-inch rows on April 26. He used a two-pass herbicide program and applied a fungicide and an insecticide.

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