This year saw a record number of acres planted to soybeans in the U.S. According to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, 84.8 million acres were planted in soybeans, an 11% increase over 2013. As American Soybean Association President and Corning, Iowa farmer Ray Gaesser notes, $12 soybeans are a likely factor.
"In general soybeans have taken a backseat to corn, but in 2014 when soybeans were a little higher price, farmers switched four million acres to soybeans," Gaesser says. "The market will tell farmers what to plant. The markets told farmers what to plant this year – they're growing more soybeans."
Corn may still be king, but with higher soybean prices, more growers are trying to get the most out of their soybean acres. Gaesser says protecting soybean yields starts with getting out and observing what happened in the field and applying those observations back to the yield monitor. "It takes a combination of knowing your farm and using the technology that we have," he adds.
Monitor, then manage
Iowa State University Associate Professor and Extension Plant Pathologist Alison Robertson says it starts with good scouting – yield monitors don't tell the whole story. "In my department, we have a saying, 'dead plants tell no tales.' A red spot on your yield monitor tells no tales either," she says. "You know there was poor yield in that area, but you don't know why."
The only way to know what happened is to get out in the field and take good notes, whether it's weed pressure, insect pressure, or diseases like soybean cyst nematode (SCN), frogeye leaf spot, brown stem rot, white mold, or like many farmers in the Midwest experienced this year, sudden death syndrome (SDS).
Drive-by scouting at 60 miles an hour can mean missing a disease in its early stages, or misidentifying a disease. "This year we saw SDS, but also brown stem rot, and stem canker. We saw SDS symptoms all over Iowa, but you can get those same leaf symptoms with brown stem rot, white mold, and stem canker," Robertson says. "If you're doing 60-mile-per-hour scouting, you might just call it SDS, and it turns out to be brown stem rot or stem canker."
Reducing the impact of some diseases, like brown spot or frogeye leaf spot, depends on catching and applying foliar fungicide in a timely manner, adds Virgil Schmitt, ISU Extension Field Agronomist in eastern Iowa. "However, a lot of diseases we're concerned about aren't foliar," Schmitt says. "Growers can still make note of what diseases were out in the field and select a variety that has fairly decent resistance to those diseases."
Getting out in the field also gives a chance to determine if herbicide applications are working, and if a second pass is needed. Without getting in the field, growers might see a red spot on a yield monitor, match it with a weedy spot, and wrongly assume they skipped that spot with their herbicide application. "Is this an area that I missed with an herbicide application, or is this an area with resistant weeds? Those are all things to consider," Schmitt says.
"Whether it's insect, disease, weeds, or fertility, being proactive will always be beneficial compared to reactive," Schmitt says. "You don't go from 0 to 100 in an instant. It builds up. Timely management depends on watching and catching those things early."
Level playing field
While corn yields have increased over time, soybean yields have mostly stayed static, Robertson notes. "But we also know of producers who grow 100-bushel soybeans," she says. "What are they doing to grow those soybeans? Most importantly, they go into the field every day and they're babying those soybeans to maximize yield out of them."
With the current price and rising demand around the world, Gaesser says the time is right to grow more soybeans "We continue to grow more and more soybeans and continue to run out – we ran out of soybeans this year," he says. "We are going to have a huge crop in the U.S. this year. We're hearing about a record export demand of 3.6 billion bushels for the fiscal year."
"That extra management, those extra seed treatments, extra fungicide applications, all those things are what make soybeans competitive with corn," Gaesser adds. "Historically, soybeans have kind of taken a backseat to corn, and we need to learn to manage them as well as we do our corn."