It is no secret that agriculture faces many head winds in 2020. The effects of COVID-19, large carryover forecasts, continually evolving trade relationships and a volatile oil market shape supply and demand for key commodities—like soybeans—on a daily basis. For the foreseeable future soybean prices are expected to be less than $9 per bushel, causing many growers to re-evaluate their crop budgets and input decisions that will affect yield and profitability in 2020. Let us consider a few factors for making profitable agronomic management decisions this season:
When can soybean yields be affected most by crop management decisions?
Everything we do to a soybean crop should affect one or more components of yield. Although factors like branching and number of seeds per pod do contribute to yield, the three components that we have the greatest opportunity to change through management are plant population, pod number and seed weight. In other words, decisions made at planting and during the reproductive stages are most likely to increase yield and return-on-investment (ROI).
Nice to have versus need to have:
At this point in the season, it is likely that your soybean seed has been purchased and may have even been planted. For those acres not yet planted, let’s consider a couple of planting time decisions that impact yield and profitability:
- Seeding rate: The number of planted seeds has been trending downward in recent years as research has shown that yield can be optimized at populations as low as 100,000 per acre if evenly spaced. If you are still dropping more than 140,000 seeds per acre, this may be an opportunity to trim unnecessary cost.
- Seed treatment: Seed treatment is especially important when planting early but should not be ignored when planting later in the season. Fungal pathogens like Phytophthora and Rhizoctonia can be problematic in warmer soils, and newer seed treatment products providing protection against difficult-to-control pests like Sudden Death Syndrome or Soybean Cyst Nematode are still useful.
- Other early season inputs: There is an increasing array of options to include at planting including inoculants and biologicals. It is fun to experiment and try new offerings on a few acres of the farm, but many of these products may be more appropriate for certain environments and production systems. This is a great opportunity to work with your local agronomist or Certified Crop Advisor to determine what makes sense for your operation.
Before and after the crop emerges, effective weed control should be top-of-mind. We are continually faced with new and expanding weed control challenges driven by herbicide resistance, and the introduction of new active ingredients is not keeping pace with these challenges. Although it may represent a large chunk of many growers’ crop budgets, pre-emergent herbicides followed by layered residuals, effective post-emergence chemistry and recommended adjuvants are often-overlooked components of a high yielding soybean crop.
As we progress through late June and into July, attention should focus on reproductive stage applications to enhance flower retention, pod set and optimizing conditions for pod fill. This is the point in the season when extra bushels can be gained through the application of fungicide, insecticide and foliar nutrition. These are proven practices, but how can we further optimize their ROI?
- Fungicide: There are many great fungicide products available to address common diseases like frogeye leaf spot. Once you have chosen a fungicide product, simple details like increasing water volume, choosing the right nozzle, and using a drift and deposition adjuvant help get more fungicide coverage lower in the canopy to protect leaf area and pod fill.
- Insecticide: Do you have insects in the field at the time of application? Scouting is an easy way to decide whether to include an insecticide.
- Foliar nutrition: I am a firm believer in the importance of micronutrients for high yielding crops. Tissue testing is an easy and relatively low-cost step that can be taken to decide if to apply and what to apply. Also, before investing dollars in a micronutrient application, consider which other nutritional factors might be limiting. If phosphorus and potassium levels in the soil and plant are less than ideal, then spending dollars on micronutrients probably does not make sense until those macronutrients can be fixed.
Evaluating data sources and product selection
Growers today have access to an incredible amount of data to use in making agronomic and economic decisions for their farming operations. These include on-farm data, supplier data, universities and other third-party sources like consultants. How do you make sense of it all? Statistically sound data is important, and a lot of emphasis is put on the least significant difference value (LSD-value) as a metric for comparing products or treatments.
As you consider an LSD-value, large values relative to the expected level of product performance usually indicate that the underlying research was done poorly or very few locations were used in the trial. As the research methods improve or the entity responsible for the research has access to more locations, the LSD-value typically gets smaller. A small LSD-value accompanied by a probability (P-value) of 0.10 or less (this might also be described as a confidence level of 90% or greater) is data that you can have confidence in.
One final note about data. No product will ever work or be profitable 100% of the time. Real world results are shaped by distributions of positive, null and negative responses when comparing to a control. Good products do tend to have a greater proportion of positive responses, but make sure you visit with your agronomist or product supplier about weather conditions, agronomic factors and other watch-outs that help determine whether a product or practice will be profitable on your farm. There are many effective products for sale, but proper product placement is as critical as ever in these challenging economic times.