For researcher and agronomist Larry Heatherly, seeing fields of Delta soybeans blooming and canopied by June 1 is like a dream come true.
“Folks, sit back and enjoy the ride this year. It's going to be good,” says Heatherly, a U.S. Department of Agriculture agronomist headquartered at Stoneville, Miss., who has researched the early soybean production system for almost two decades.
This year, Mississippi producers planted 39 percent of the state's estimated 1.65-million-acre crop by April 11, compared to a five-year average of only 9 percent planted by the same date.
Heatherly says the majority of those early beans were planted by growers with little if any experience with early beans.
“I think the increase in early-planted beans was totally motivated by hopes for an August premium,” he says. “We haven't had this kind of interest before. If you go back the past two or three years when prices were below the loan rate, we never had anyone calling about planting in March.”
However, March-planted beans are well on their way to what Heatherly believes will be a high-yielding crop.
“It looks as good as we thought it would look,” he says.
Heatherly does caution, however, that producers still have some crucial management decisions to make. The most important of which is irrigation timing.
“We are at a point where the plant is using as much water per day as it's going to use all year. It's beginning to form pods and in some cases forming seeds,” says Heatherly. “This is the absolute critical time to insure we don't have drought stress. We've had widespread rain, and producers can be lulled into thinking moisture is going to last longer than it will. They should start watering and err on the side of too soon as opposed to too late,” he adds.
Dan Poston, a weed scientist and Extension soybean specialist at the Delta Research and Extension Center at Stoneville, supports Heatherly's concern that growers aren't turning the water on the beans soon enough.
“Growers aren't used to turning the water on in early June. One of the biggest mistakes they can make now is not realizing the need for early irrigation on these early beans,” says Poston. “They don't need to get caught with the pipe not in the field.”
Gauging pest control
Even though his optimism is high, Heatherly says no one has all the answers about early beans. When it comes to disease and insect management, growers will have to evaluate their goals and yield potential.
“I don't think we should manage diseases in the early beans any differently than we manage diseases in a normal crop. It's just that with high prices and high yield potential, people get scared and want to spend money to take care of things,” says Heatherly.
Based on past research and observations, Poston leans towards the theory that beans planted ultra early — March and early April — will grow fast enough to avoid the need for a fungicide, but later-planted beans could benefit from an application of Quadris or a similar chemical.
“We have a fair amount of experience with fungicide benefits on beans planted after April 15,” says Poston. “We've been getting at least a two- to five-bushel response on high-yielding early beans, which with $7 beans is more than going to pay for the fungicide application. We are recommending some fungicide applications go out on beans in that planting window.
“The window we are having the hardest time with is this late March and early April planting, which is essentially 10 to 14 days early. We feel in that window the beans will avoid most of the foliar diseases. We are steering away from fungicides in those early beans.”
According to Poston, fungicide applications made anywhere from R3 (beginning pod) to R5 (beginning seed) have yielded an additional 2 to 5 bushels on early-planted beans in the range of 60- to 70-bushel yield potential.
“If you move that into the May-planted beans, you may be talking about a 5- to 10- to 15-bushel response,” he says.
Poston adds that fungicide applications after R5 generally do not produce a yield increase, but they can increase pod quality, which might save a crop from deterioration from bad weather.
The other enemy of the early soybeans is insects, specifically stink bugs at this stage of growth. Poston describes the early beans as a “trap crop.”
“Our recommendation is if you have nine stinkbugs per 25 sweeps with the net, then you are at the threshold where control is needed,” Poston says.
Will gain height
Heatherly says growers who are not experienced with the early soybean production system are expressing some concern about plant height.
“I've just finished some definitive work that shows indeterminates — the Group 3s and 4s — have attained only one-third of their height when they start blooming. Two-thirds of the height of indeterminate varieties is achieved after beginning bloom.
“If producers look in the terminal, they will see clusters of leaves left to come out and that means the plant still has height to grow,” says Heatherly. “As long as these indeterminates have clusters of unrolled leaves in the tip of the stem they are still growing in height.”
According to Heatherly, growers just have to get used to these early beans and relax.
“This system is where we are going to go. It's simpler. It's less risk. It exposes farmers to fewer weather stresses. It shortens his season. He gets as good a price as he hopes to get,” he says. “It's just going to take people a while to realize this isn't as risky as it seems. This is going to be a good thing.”