Soybean production in the past 10 years has undergone a radical transformation at both ends of the statistical spectrum. On the positive side, yields are up, and so is the frequency of getting unexpectedly good crops.
Unfortunately, what we get on one hand, we can lose with the other, and the yield losses where weeds, diseases and pests aren’t controlled are climbing too.
But perhaps most expensive is a less intensive approach to soybean management on some farms, and a “just enough” mindset that is holding us back, and that is also paving the way for problems with nematodes, white mould and herbicide-resistant weeds.
Get that extra 15 per cent
It’s in the face of all of these factors that Eric Richter, a sales agronomist with Syngenta, is doing all he can to change the focus on soybean production, and to apply a more intensive management outlook. (See October 2015 Soybean Guide for our story with Richter on the factors limiting soybean yield potential.)
Now, Richter is focused on building a “whole-systems” approach to soybean production, and the 2015 growing season provided extra incentive with opportunities to see the benefits of a more intensive management system. For instance, soy yield broke the 90 bu./ac. mark in one high-yield management plot that Richter supervised at the company’s fields north of London. In 2014, using the same system and the same protocols and treatments, that plot yielded 75 bu./ac.
Richter’s goal there is to crack 100 bu./ac., and he’s hoping that 2016 will be the year when things “start to get interesting.”
The primary focus for Richter is to exploit ways of making a variety’s genetics and the field’s environment work together.
Getting that “G x E” paradigm right, Richter says, can add 15 per cent to yield.
“We need to continue to drive home the point of ‘genetics by environment,’ and how important it is for a grower to understand which variety they’re choosing and why, and what portfolio they’re going to use,” says Richter. He holds to the idea that growers can’t hear about this enough, and that understanding it includes a thorough plan with different contingencies. “I call it ‘the heat of the battle’, where in the spring planting rush, a lot of times, ‘Plan A’ gets tossed and we go to ‘Plan B’ and then we go to ‘C.’ But at least we have those three contingencies, and there’s lots of room to move that bar and improve the system by positioning varieties.”
Soil type, productivity potential and soil health need to dovetail, Richter maintains, and he says, new research is showing more ways to make that happen. For instance, he says, a perfect example is “planting depth by date” and the impact it has on stand establishment.
“Planting depth by date doesn’t get talked about very much,” Richter says, adding that a lot of growers don’t always consider the impact of the two. “If you’re planting beans on April 25th at two-and-a-half inches deep — anything deeper than two inches — and not looking at soil temperatures, as a grower, you need to look at what you’re doing. The soil temperature gradient on April 25th or May 1st is radically different than what it would be on May 25th, and soybeans still like warm soil, warmer than what we require for corn.”
Farmers can plant early, and there is still a significant impact of soil temperature and its potential effect on soybean germination and emergence. Richter points to the response to temperatures among different varieties: some have a better ability to germinate and emerge under cooler conditions. Seed quality is another, yet he believes planting depth and soil temperature — effectively “planting depth by date” — is the key.
Another pillar in Richter’s approach is the significant response in both corn and soybeans to early planting and additional yield. But the two responses are different.
“What I want to do is get growers to manage their soybeans with the same intensity and level of detail as they do their corn crop,” Richter says. “There were thousands of acres of soybeans this past year that didn’t get sprayed for aphids that definitely would have put big dollars in the grower’s pocket. But in corn, that wouldn’t have happened; growers were out there and doing corrective measures and adjusting their management system, applying products to eliminate problems.”
Case in point was a test plot of soybeans on a low organic sand. With a more intensive management regimen, Richter was able to generate a nine-bushel response with 80 units of nitrogen applied in-crop. That was a $2 return for a $1 investment. Yet on this farm, the farmer experienced significant aphid pressure but didn’t spray it. So the impact of the nitrogen application could have been much higher.
Emergence is critical
Next comes emergence, and it’s here that Richter would like to see a change in the indifference that growers may exhibit towards their soybean crops.
“We talk about soybeans and how they can compensate, and I challenge that: if you are happy as a grower with 45- to 55-bushel beans, don’t worry about stand establishment,” he says. “If you’re happy with 45 to 55 and you have adequate stands, that’s where you’ll be and that’s probably where you’ll stay.”
To move consistently beyond 55 bushels and into 60- and 70-bushel levels, however, agronomists, researchers and advisers need to do more to help growers do a better job of stand establishment.
“The other area around stand establishment that I find very intriguing is the gap between what is seeded and the final stand,” says Richter, noting it is another area where corn growers are quick to act, while soybean growers are somewhat lax. “In corn, if that gap is any larger than 10 per cent, the grower is likely right on that, trying to figure out what’s happened and how to solve it. But in soybeans, many fields are still between 20 and 30 per cent difference between what was seeded and the final counts on emergence.”
Within his Elite Soybean Grower Group, Richter has been working on closing that gap, and he has several of the growers who have shaved it to 10 per cent. That means it’s an achievable goal, and one key step towards moving yields higher.
More yield winners
The fourth and fifth factors that Richter adds are rotation and tillage, although both fit into more of a seasonal management perspective.
If there’s one other aspect of intensive soybean production that Richter believes needs improvement, it’s in the potential for pests and diseases to drastically reduce yields. What’s particularly frustrating is that most of the answers that apply to solving puzzles with stand establishment or plant populations apply equally to pests and diseases. Farmers can get more by scouting, identifying the issues and solving them accordingly.
In the past three growing seasons, white mould has become an increasing issue in Eastern Canada. For regions of eastern Ontario and western Quebec, it has all but established itself as an annual challenge. Soybean cyst nematode (SCN) is the other, recently discovered at very high frequencies and infection rates in parts of Huron, Bruce and Grey counties. And the same scenario is occurring with soybean aphids.
Richter again refers to some of the work he’s done with the company’s Elite Soybean Grower Group. First, there’s the need to identify the challenges, and something like white mould is very specific — and evident. The second step may be the hardest, says Richter, which is to accepting that it actually is a problem. Many growers are embarrassed to find they have SCN or white mould, or that aphids have landed in their fields, and they may not be aware of the yield loss potential, either before or after the disease (or pest) sets in. But it all can happen quickly, and often, by the time growers realize there’s a problem, it’s too far gone to fix it.
“We have to pre-empt this. We have to plan ahead, recognize that we are at risk, identify that we have the problem, assess that risk and then build a plan,” says Richter, explaining how to deal with white mould as an example. “Genetics first, meaning a highly tolerant variety. Then, what are the cultural practices you’re going to undertake to mitigate the risk and not create an environment that is favourable to white mould? And what are treatments that you’re going to do in crop?”
Once again, it’s that whole-systems approach — from weed management to soil health to fertility to pest and disease management, says Richter. “We still have a huge opportunity.”