When it comes to farming, Jason Smith admits he's often single-minded and, once he makes a decision, isn't easily dissuaded. But, as the large crowd attending the recent Tri-State Soybean Forum found, the flipside of the young farmer's stubborn nature is an easy willingness to admit mistakes.
That's especially true if it means helping another producer avoid pitfalls he's encountered.
“We all have slip-ups,” said Smith, who farms with his father and sister outside Dumas, Ark. “We all know what standing water in soybeans will do, but we still get so caught up with the crop that drainage is an area we neglect.
“In my opinion, you can take almost any soybean on any row spacing, add moisture and very, very good drainage and make a crop every single time.
“Every year, certain fields of mine are short, stunted and the beans don't come back. That's from irrigation water that's left on a little too long.”
Smith tries to do “a lot” of no-till. That can lead to trouble with residue in middles and blocking of pipes.
“(Debris) can get caught up in grass and cattails in the ditch and won't let water out. It should be so easy to control (drainage), but we struggle with it. I find myself rationalizing it away: it's only a few acres at the bottom of the field. But if I'm stretched that thin, maybe I should have stopped earlier and had the ditches and drainage checked.”
Add up a couple of stunted acres in every Smith field and “that's a couple hundred acres that end up cutting 15 bushels. That's 200 acres that could've brought another 30 bushels per acre.”
Some of the ways the Smiths have tried to control the aforementioned problems have worked well. Each of the farmhands is now assigned a certain number of fields to monitor.
“They look at those same fields every day, water them, know everything about them. When it rains, the hands don't come to the shop any more. Standing order: when it rains, check your (assigned) fields first.”
It can be difficult to make sure the planter is set properly, said Smith.
“One problem I have is doubling seed when it's dropped. We use both Monosem and Great Plains double-row planters and they are good planters … but can drop one or two doubles every row foot.”
Smith insists the best course is to “know the size bean you're planting. With the Great Plains, I've had to really watch the plate size and use plenty of powder. And when switching varieties, I always check how the new bean fits the plate on the planter. Even though it's supposed to be 2,700 beans per pound, they may not fit the plate. That's true even with beans of the same variety from different lots.”
On the Monosem — “or even Deere vacuum planters” — the rate of vacuum and position of the bumpers on the plate “can affect (doubles). This is an easy, free way (to help your operation). Just by cutting doubles I feel we save as much as 10 percent of our seed.
“From what I've heard Roundup Ready soybeans will be selling for next year, this is something that can save us a bunch of money. When my planter is dropping a double every foot, I'm losing money on seed, I'm losing yield from added competition and inviting disease to become an issue.”
Timing is another thing Smith admits to struggling with. “I've heard on more than one occasion: keep your beans clean early and some (weeds) can come in later that won't affect yields badly. I'm a big believer in keeping soybeans clean for at least the first two months.”
Since Roundup Ready technology has taken over, “a lot of times we get away from the mindset of ‘spray early and get it taken care of.’ Instead there's an attitude of ‘I'll wait a (while) until the crop gets closer to canopying and I'll spray once and be done with it.’”
There's much talk about the cost of glyphosate costing more this year. “But if I have to pay another $1.50 per acre, it's still not that much compared to conventional herbicide costs versus the ease of application of Roundup.”
Whether from rain, wind or something else, there are a few fields every year that don't get sprayed with glyphosate until they're “pretty hairy. One way I've tried to fix that is with certified crop consultants. Southern Agronomic Resources (based in DeWitt, Ark.) has helped me close the gap when it comes to making applications at just the right time. They check my fields once a week and when they finish I get a nice printout that verifies what I need to do in the next week.”
Since hiring the consultants, said Smith, “the difference has been night and day. I don't see as many fields with problems as I used to. The fields are clean early, irrigation is done at the right stage, fungicides are applied properly, and stinkbugs haven't gotten over threshold. Being on time has narrowed the yield gap on our farm tremendously.”
The biggest mistake Smith “ever made” is getting in too big a hurry to plant.
“In 2006, I farmed 5,300 acres with 3,600 acres of soybeans — the most I'd planted. I was worried that I wouldn't get all (those acres) planted. That spring, I decided to plant all Group 4s and get them made early.”
Doing so, he figured, would save diesel on pumping, would get the crop harvested on dry ground and allow time to work the fields up and provide a head start for the next year.
A warm March stirred Smith to plant. “I got fired up and started planting soybeans on March 20. It was about 75 degrees. My guys rolled across the farm — my father said it looked like a tornado.”
Smith pulled 3,600 acres of soybeans in seven days. What happened after that “almost cost me the farm. It began getting cold about mid-April and started raining. It rained and rained and when it stopped I'd gotten over 15 inches of rain at my shop in three weeks. And it had been 50 or 60 degrees the whole time.”
The beans stopped growing. They were stunted by water and cold weather.
“We plowed and did everything we could think of to make them grow but they didn't come out of it.
“My next mistake was when we began harvesting wheat. It had gotten very dry and we needed to be watering (the beans) but were custom-cutting wheat. The beans suffered because I was a couple of weeks late (with an irrigation).”
And it was dry all summer.
“I ended up watering the beans five or six times — they never caught a rain.
Smith began cutting beans on Aug. 15. “I wanted to be through harvesting everything by mid-September. We got through cutting the whole 5,300 acres in a little over 30 days. When I was through with the soybeans, yield was a shade less than 30 bushels per acre — pretty bad.
“I had lots of people say, ‘Well, it wasn't a Group 4 year.’ But, in the end, all the signs pointed back to things I'd done. No matter the weather, I never should've planted all those Group 4 beans that early in seven days. I chalked it up to being young and hard-headed.”
Having learnt a valuable lesson, in 2007, Smith slowed down. “I planted a few beans, Group 4s, around mid-April. I planted more 4s and 5s around the first of May through mid-May. And we planted wheat-beans in June. I spread the risk out over the farm. This time, we had a really good soybean year.”