STUTTGART, Ark. - Who says you can’t grow soybeans on a zero-grade field? Ronnie Helms not only did it on a 90-acre field near Stuttgart in 2003, but he achieved some remarkable yields in the process.

Helms is a farmer and partner in G&H Associates, an agricultural research and technical support business located in Stuttgart. He leased the field from George Dunklin, a rice producer from neighboring DeWitt. Dunklin, who owns Five Oaks hunting lodge, purchased the field six years ago for both rice production and duck hunting. The field had a history of rice cropping, but had primarily been used for hunting in recent years.

“You can imagine, we had all kinds of red rice problems on the field,” Helms said. “We leveled it knowing that Clearfield rice was coming. Our plan was to eventually put the ground in rice.”

There were a couple of problems. The biggest one, of course, was that Clearfield rice was not yet approved, meaning Roundup Ready soybeans were his best option to get red rice under control at the time.

Another concern was that the field had been zero graded, as are most of Dunklin’s fields. Conventional wisdom was that soybeans didn’t do well in a zero-grade system because of difficulty getting water on and off fields quickly.

But Helms knew it could be done. The key was to go with plenty of surface drainage with inside ditches and PTO ditches across the field. A seed treatment, good weed control and a couple of micronutrients were also important in Helms’ program.

In 2002, Dunklin decided to cut back on his own rice production and leased the field to Helms. Helms used the same production program in 2002 and 2003. Hornbeck HBK 4820RR soybeans were planted April 8 (in both years) with a Great Plains 2020 no-till drill on 10-inch rows.

“We used Apron Maxx with molybdenum, a micronutrient you put on as a seed treatment when your pH is in the 5.5 range,” said Helms. “When you plant beans early in a Sharkey Clay soil, you need a good seed treatment.”

He bumped his seeding rate “a little bit” to about 70 pounds per acre. “We put in plenty of water furrows, and we applied 18-46-0 at the third trifoliate.”

Helms went with Honcho Plus and First Rate on his first glyphosate application, “because there was a lot of teaweed in the field.”

That was followed three weeks later with another application of Honcho Plus and Coron (liquid nitrogen) with boron. “A clay soil flooded all winter needs a little nitrogen shot,” Helms said. “The boron is a micronutrient tied up by organic matter.”

The boron also hastens the maturity of the soybeans. “When you plant beans early, you want to get them harvested in August and three or four days may make a difference,” Helms explained. “Typically, if you deliver beans in August, you get a premium, versus a September delivery. It’s an edge you’re looking for. You may get 50 cents to a dollar a bushel more.”

In addition, “A lot of research has indicated that we deplete boron when we precision level fields. It’s about a $4 treatment,” Helms said.

The beans were irrigated two times in both years. Each year, at 20-40 percent leaf drop, around the middle of August, Helms seeded a waterfowl forage he developed called Five Oaks Golden Grass, which grew as the soybeans matured.

The soybeans were harvested leaving the Golden Grass to continue to grow and head out. Then it was flooded for duck hunting. “The key there is you can’t do that with a Group 6 soybean. We went to a Group 4.8 and planted it early.”

The first year, the field yielded 55 bushels of soybeans per acre, which prompted Helms to try the program again the following year.

During an interview at the field in 2003, Helms noted, “These beans are loaded from top to bottom. They may make 60-bushels. They may make more. It proves we can grow soybeans on zero-grade fields.”

Even Helms was surprised when the field ended up harvesting a whopping 71 bushels per acre.

This coming year, the field will be planted in conventional rice. “We don’t want to put Clearfield out there without having a knowledge base of the red rice situation. Clearfield seed will cost more, so we’ll evaluate the situation.”

The experiment also proved that zero-graded fields that have heavy red rice infestations could very quickly be prepared for a continuous rice cropping system. “If you have a red rice field that’s been zero-graded, you can grow Clearfield rice, then a year of Roundup Ready soybeans, then go back to a year of regular rice.

“When you move a field into Clearfield rice, you’re creating an environment to break the dormancy of the red rice,” Helms said. “You get it established, then you control it with the Newpath. Then you come in with a Roundup Ready crop and take out the red rice in your soybean crop and hopefully by the third year, you can grow Francis or Wells and have very little if any red rice.”

For more information and photos on this and other topics, see the March 26 issue of Delta Farm Press.

e-mail:erobinson@primediabusiness.com