WASHINGTON, D.C. — Longtime agronomist and noted soybean researcher Larry Heatherly of Stoneville, Miss., is the 2004 recipient of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s highest honor.

Heatherly, an Agricultural Research Service agronomist with USDA from 1975 until 2004, is this year’s recipient of USDA’s Plow Award for “enhancing economic opportunities for agricultural producers.”

At a recognition ceremony in Washington, USDA Secretary Ann M. Veneman honored Heatherly with the award, sighting his leadership and accomplishments in soybean irrigation technology, the stale seedbed planting system and the early soybean production system for the Mid-South region of the United States, which resulted in increased yields and profits.

“These awards highlight the dedication and talents of ARS employees who contribute in so many ways to improving the world around us,” said Edward B. Knipling, ARS acting administrator. “The accomplishments of each of these honorees exemplify public service at its best.”

“I am humbled and honored by all of this,” says Heatherly. ”A boy from rural west Tennessee never expects this kind of attention or accolade. It has been a tremendous pleasure to work at something I love and to have it come to this. The producers in the Delta are a great group, and I am very fortunate to have worked at Stoneville.”

Heatherly spent his entire post-graduate career with USDA-ARS at Stoneville. His research specialty areas are soybean irrigation, cropping systems, economics of cropping systems that use soybeans and economics of tillage systems for soybeans. Heatherly developed the stale seedbed concept, soybean irrigation technology and the Early Soybean Production System (ESPS) for the Mid-South.

Growers are sometimes given a premium to cover shortages in the market, usually from Aug. 15 to Sept. 15.

Why is the early-planting system so successful? “Because it brings crops into sync with the weather,” explains Heatherly. “Plants require more water during their reproductive stage. Early planting means they’ll be going through that developmental phase during the season of higher rainfall, from April through June.”

Drought is common in the Mid-South region later in the growing season, from July through early September. That means plants sown on the conventional timetable develop pods and seeds and fill the seeds during the hot, dry months when water is scarce. Heatherly says, “ESPS allows Mid-South farmers to avoid drought, harvest earlier, and increase yields and profit.”

Since 1992, Heatherly compared yields and net returns from ESPS plantings to those from conventional plantings. Data from the 1992 through 1998 growing seasons show that ESPS soybeans outperformed conventional soybean plantings. ESPS soybeans averaged 33 bushels per acre, compared with 27.3 bushels per acre in traditional plantings. Net returns were $69 an acre for early planting, versus $29 per acre from later plantings.

“Average state yields during the 1970s and 1980s were only 21.5 to 22 bushels an acre,” says Heatherly. “As ESPS has gained in popularity, average yields have risen.”

Heatherly was a co-recipient of the Soybean Research Team Recognition Award presented by the American Soybean Association in 1991. He is an elected Fellow of the Crop Science Society of America (1991) and the American Society of Agronomy (1992). He is a recipient of a 2001 USDA-ARS National Award for Superior Technology Transfer Achievement. In 2004, Heatherly received Delta Council’s “Researcher of the Year” award.

He has published more than 120 research articles, is the author of eight book chapters and is a co-editor of Soybean Production in the Mid-South and the Early Soybean Production System Handbook.

“This system (ESPS) is where we are going to go. It’s simpler. It’s less risk. It exposes farmers to less weather stress. It shortens his season. He gets as good a price as he hopes to get. It’s just going to take people a while to realize this isn’t as risky as it seems because if you look, our 50 percent last frost date is March 28 at Stoneville.” says Heatherly.

Heatherly holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in agronomy and is a Vietnam veteran. He can be reached at 662-686-3128 or lheatherly@ars.usda.gov.

e-mail: eadorris@aol.com