On a mid-August afternoon, Lanny Ashlock drove north from Lake Village, Ark., into the heart of Arkansas’ Delta country. After following the ribbon of tarmac through miles and miles of superb cropland, it dawned on the state’s veteran soybean researcher/agronomist: 2013 is the year someone will finally break 100 bushels per acre.

In the weeks since, Ashlock has repeatedly been proven correct. In mid-September, three southeast Arkansas farmers have harvested confirmed 100-bushel-plus soybeans. And there is plenty of time for more to add their names to the list.

Ashlock, now with Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board (ASPB) outreach, couldn’t be happier. “We’ve been waiting and working towards someone breaking that 100-bushel barrier for seven years, now.

“The board of directors of the Arkansas Soybean Association had a yield contest committee. They submitted a proposal to the ASPB in 2007 and the board then backed the $50,000 award to the first individual, or individuals, that could certify yields of 100 bushels, or better.”

In years past, producers have hit right at 95 bushels. “But this year, things looked really good in many parts of southeast Arkansas almost from the get-go. We’ve always been hopeful that someone would do it. But this year has looked very promising with around 60 entrants into the contest. The first entrant, Nelson Crow, that harvested actually did it.”

More on Crow’s winning field here.

More on the soybean yield contests here.

Many of the area producers knew they had outstanding crops. In July, when the plants began setting pods in earnest, Ashlock took a call from a farmer who said, “I just hope we can finish these out without any trouble. These look so good after that cool July.”

The incredible yield bumps have not come in a vacuum. While Ashlock is quick to heap praise on producers for their hard work, he’s equally complimentary of the university research being done with check-off funds.

“A few years back, the ASPB, with check-off dollars, really began to look at increasing yields at the research level, and then they involved the research stations. This is a big effort – from research work at stations and farmers’ field, to yield contests, to education.”

At the Pine Tree Station -- just west of Colt, Ark., where the interviews for this story took place – director Shawn Clark, “has plots where he’s trying to build yields. When I was (University of Arkansas soybean specialist), I used to work with him at Cotton Branch, at the Rohwer Station and over at Newport Station,” says Ashlock.

The stations all have different soils and conditions. That allows growers in the areas around the stations to see “what can be done in the region. It’s more than winning a contest; it’s trying to maximize profits and yields.”

Ashlock also nods toward southwest Missouri yield-master Kip Cullers as having “woken us all up to the possibilities with yields and that we can all do better. And we’ve been trying ever since.”

Research

Following Culler’s successes, Larry Purcell, University of Arkansas researcher, submitted a proposal six years ago. “He and his assistant been working in the same yield work and have been monitoring what Kip’s been doing – fertilizer, row-spacing, variety selection, planting date, all of that,” says Ashlock. Purcell has since “carried that around the state and is also working in farmers’ fields.

Further, “Jeremy Ross – current Arkansas soybean specialist -- has some research being funded by the USB. He’s been working with Extension soybean specialists all across the country. He’s been looking at what inputs can be brought to the crop to increase yields – the ‘kitchen sink’ approach. I think he’s in close contact with his counterpart in Mississippi, Trent Irby, and Louisiana, Ronnie Levy.”

A lot of researchers are looking at innoculants and different treatments that will goose yields. Ross “has had good success (at Pine Tree), where the soils are productive but not the most fertile. The check-off dollars have provided financial support for the researchers to get out and find answers on how to overcome challenges.”

Northeast Arkansas

While growing conditions have been excellent in southern Arkansas, producers in the north have not been as blessed.

“It was a very wet, cold spring,” says Clark. “The earliest soybeans planted here went in mid- to late-May. We kept getting intermittent rains. You could count on an inch-plus rain every week to 10 days. The bean crop is really scattered out. We quit planting after July even though some fields weren’t planted.”

Still, Clark says the bean crops here are fair. “I think that’s true for most of northeast Arkansas. I know the station at Kaiser is still wet.

“As far as plot-work we have some good beans – Jeremy has some that look very good. But the delayed planting for others has really hampered the crop.”

Ross, meanwhile, is working the second generation of a United Soybean Board-funded project started five years ago. “Originally, the project was conducted in six states and we got pretty good results out of it. From that first three-year project, we went to studies in eight states with more emphasis on what we’d found looked good earlier.

“Now, we’re in the second year of the second three-year project cycle. Last year, we got more good results.”

Ross’ Pine Tree plots were planted in mid-May, “so they were a bit late. We got a good rain right after planting. The three USB-funded tests came up looking great.”

On the Pine Tree station, there is a large deer population. Ross says “part of one of the tests was damaged from deer feeding early. Hopefully, (those tests will) come around.

“The main focus is what farmers can do to bump yields. What works best? What are the options? To get answers we’re looking at different varieties, different seeding rates, seed treatments, fungicides and insecticides, additional seed treatments, and enhanced fertility. Later in the season, we’re looking at foliar fertilizer products.”

The whole package

Ross and fellow researchers want to know how to approach the whole package. “On top of that, we tweak things – eliminate certain things – to see if there’s a yield bump.

“From the first three years of this project, the largest yield bump came from narrow-row spacing and also late-season – R3/R5 – fungicide applications.”

In early September, “we’re starting to see some late-season diseases,” says Ross. “Frogeye is beginning to pick up. SDS is also very bad this year, state-wide. So far, we haven’t had to treat the plots for insects.”

The state’s soybeans “are kind of split,” says Ross. “Draw a line from Pine Bluff to Stuttgart to Helena. Everything around there and south looks very good -- the beans took advantage of the cooler conditions in July and August.”

Unfortunately, north of that line, things aren’t as consistent. “Some fields look pretty good but there are also some late-planted fields that are shaky. North of Jonesboro, where there has been a bunch of rain, the poor fields are much more prevalent. About 10 days ago, I got a call on a 40-acre field -- right at R3 -- that went completely underwater.”

Has Ross seen greater producer willingness to adopt practices proven by research?

“The last couple of years, many producers have been going twin-rows, where they’re narrowing up the 38-inch row spacing. Others have gone to air seeders, trying to get across fields quicker.

“That also helps with weed control, covering up the middles.

“It seems every five years, or so, there is a wave of new techniques that are tried. Producers will buy a new planter and shift to different row spacings and things like that. Folks are willing to try all kinds of things to bump yields, especially in soybeans.”  

Currently, Ross is collaborating on a Newport Station plant architecture study with weed specialist Bob Scott. “What beans work better on narrow rows? What beans work best on wider rows? We selected two Group 4s and two 5s – ones with more erect architecture versus bushier. Then, we have three seeding rates -- 110,000; 150,000 and 190,000 – along with row spacing at 15 inches, 30 inches and 38 inches.”

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 The pair has evaluated those all year on weed pressures. At the end of the year, they’ll check yield differences.

“Right next to them, though, we’ve got weed-free plots. Not only have put out the herbicides, we’ve also hand-weeded. That will provide a weed-free check versus beans in a more conventional program.”