You probably recently read the press release announcing Illinois as the No. 1 soybean producing state in the U.S. once again. And for a global perspective—Illinois is ranked the 4th largest soybean producing country in the world. Kudos to the growers and agronomists in Illinois who are making this happen.
In the recent USDA Crop Report that was issued January 12, National Agricultural Statistics Service stated “Soybeans: Planted area, at 10.6 million acres, up 5 percent from 2016. Harvested area, at 10.55 million acres, is up 5 percent from the previous year. The soybean yield is estimated at 58 bushels per acre, down 1 bushel from 2016. Production is estimated at a record high 612 million bushels, up 3 percent from the previous year.”
Why is the “612 million bushels” significant? It represents a goal that the Illinois Soybean Association set to produce and utilize 600 million bushels a year by 2020.
So, what is up with soybean yields in the U.S., Illinois and elsewhere to bring about such a dramatic increase?
Scott Irwin with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) pointed out that U.S. yields the last four seasons have been above trendline. This shouldn’t be a big surprise because we have seen increases in soybean yields across Illinois with 5- to 8-bushel jumps over trendline the last four years.
We know that the rate of genetic gain in soybeans has increased from 1/3 to 2/3 of a bushel per year and probably even greater after 2010 with seed companies adopting more molecular breeding techniques to screen and move breeding lines to market faster.
While weather and genetics play an important role in yield, we know that this increase in yield above trend line is mainly attributed to better management of the crop. Or, in other words, growers have learned that soybeans can yield but they take a more intense, systems-approach management style to get there.
We have seen similar yield gains in the Illinois Soybean Association Yield Challenge since 2010. The Challenge started out as a side-by-side comparison and then added in the more traditional contest. In the side-by-side, growers generally add on a single technology with the goal of improving yield. One additional input, on average, produced a yield increase of 3.7 bu/A across eight years; and 2016 was very responsive with an average gain of nearly 6 bushels per acre. The Six Secrets of Soybean Success, developed by Fred Below, Ph.D., have taught us that the better the environment the more responsive soybeans will be to additional inputs, and 2016 was a good example.
We have also seen a steady increase in yield over eight years. In 2010 when the contest began, many of the entries in the Yield Challenge averaged yields of 40 to 70 bushels. Back then many growers complained about stagnant soybeans yields, relied primarily on genetics to improve yield and were willing to investigate what it would take to increase yields.
So much has changed in the last five years as growers begain adopting better management practices and a systems approach to increasing yield. No longer were they adding 1 or 2 practices, now they were adding 6 to 8 better management practices. And the results show it.
Since 2014 the Yield Challenge has received 7 entries breaking 100 bushels, with the highest at 110.2 bu/A in 2017. And many other soybean states have seen similar 100-bushel records broken. The Yield Challenge has also seen a steady increase in yield results, with dozens of entries now routinely hitting 80 and 90 bushels per acre as they strive to hit their personal best by adopting the best practices.
Yield Challenge results have told us that practicing good agronomics is only the foundation to higher yield potential. Employing the best row spacing, planting date, population, planting depth, weed control and residue soil management are necessary to set the crop up for success. But achieving a 10+ bu/A increase comes from employing an intense systems approach and adding technologies and practices on top of good fundamental agronomics.
Soybean agronomist Daniel Davidson, Ph.D. posts blogs on agronomy-related topics. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or ring him at 402-649-5919.