With volatile markets and commodity prices, producers may want to consider how they can make the most of all their crops, including soybeans.

Ed Winkle, a consultant with HyMark Consulting in Martinsville, Ohio, provided attendees of the 2009 National No-Tillage Conference an array of proven ideas to maximize soybean yields.

Second-Fiddle Crop.

Even as soybean seed has grown more expensive, USDA data shows that soybean yields are falling while wheat and corn yields continue to grow.

Winkle offered several possible reasons for this trend, including that soybeans lack the hybridization of corn; soybean planting and management gets back-burner treatment to corn; and that soybean soil fertility often is misunderstood.

“Corn is still king,” Winkle says. “What do you plant first? Corn or soybeans? Almost everyone I know plants corn first.”

He says that corn getting priority treatment may mean soybeans are planted late or into less-than-ideal conditions, challenging yield potential from Day 1.

Winkle offers producers steps they can take at 6 points in the production cycle to impact yields for the current growing season and seasons to come.

1. Before Planting.

“Fertilize those beans,” Winkle advises no-tillers. “Don’t let them be a scavenger crop.”

Winkle relies on soil tests for initial fertilizer applications and then dials in post-emergence applications — and applications made in the following growing seasons — with information from tissue samples taken when plants reach the first trifoliate stage.

“Seed should be handled like eggs from the day it’s planted until the day the crop is delivered to the buyer,” Winkle says.

Winkle tells producers to examine their seed and use care in handling.

“We have the technology now so that a bean never has to touch an auger,” Winkle says. “There are even seed combines with conveyors on them.

“The more seed comes in contact with an auger, the more beat up it gets and you end up killing your living, viable seed.”

Damaged seeds have reduced germination and are left open to pythium, fusarium, phytopthora, rhizoctonia and other diseases that can hurt yields.

2. At Planting.

Winkle uses a John Deere 750 no-till drill or a White planter to plant soybeans, which test at 95% cold germination. He suggests producers do a paper towel germination test to make sure they’re planting 90% or better germinating seed.

Winkle loads the drill with humus inoculants to increase yield while cushioning and protecting the seed during planting. He applies treatments for diseases common in his area.

He recommends replacing steel drill flutes (cups) with plastic versions to reduce seed damage. He says the right equipment calibrated correctly can make all the difference in yields.

“When using no-till drills, be sure to read the book and calibrate for seed size, test weight and everything else going on in that system,” Winkle says.

Seed size matters, too. “Many prefer a large seed, which is great if you’re using a corn planter,” Winkle says. “But it’s not good for a no-till drill. You will grind the seeds up.

“I recommend 3,000 seeds per pound or smaller if you are using a drill.”

Planting date is another barrier to soybean yields. “If you can’t plant it early properly — plant it later, right,” Winkle quips. “Match maturity to sunlight and moisture since soybeans are very sensitive to light.

“And try to plant in cool, wet conditions rather than hard ground. Soybeans planted in hard ground are delayed and their roots don’t have the chance to develop properly.”

Winkle says the largest barrier to soybean yields is population.

“Populations should be at 100,000 to 125,000, but it will require weed control,” he says. “Producers will need to use a burndown and a residual pre-emergence herbicide.”

One way to achieve lower populations when using drills is a seed-box treatment.

“Seed-box treatments can help cushion the seed and slow down drill drop, resulting in lower, more ideal populations,” Winkle says.

Inoculating the seed at plant also is key to achieving top yields, Winkle says.

“A lot of producers either don’t inoculate at all or slop it on,” he says. “Once symptoms are visible, the damage already is done, so invest the time and money to inoculate right.

“Either buy a good seed lot treated with the right treatment and inoculants for your situation or apply them yourself at seeding time.”

3. Emergence To Flower.

“This is when we’re setting the final yield and weeds are the No. 1 problem at this stage,” Winkle says. “Disease and insects are right there to rob yield, too.”

Now, Winkle says, is when producers should be assessing their crops and planning their next move.

He advises taking tissue samples at the first trifoliate to determine if any nutrients need to be added.

“Investigate weak spots at this point,” Winkle says. “Twenty different things can cause a weak spot.

“Find out what it is and if it might spread to the rest of the field. Fix those spots.”

Last-pass herbicide applications should be made at or just before flowering, with fungicide treatments coming a bit later. He says the R2 stage is the best time for applying fungicide.

“I can’t hardly bend back a soybean plant anywhere in this country without finding Septoria brown spot. Fungicides control that with great success if applied at the right time,” Winkle says.

Who should apply fungicides? Winkle says no-tillers growing seed that have identified disease that can be controlled with a fungicide — or those in a high-yield system — should treat. Producers in normal to lower management systems should possibly treat.

4. After Flower.

Winkle says producers should take time to dig plants, dig a root pit and examine the soil profile, compare notes with neighbors and submit 24-inch profile samples.

For roots, Winkle notes that nodes should be large and situated at the crown of the plant.

“The nodes should be as big as a fingernail and red or pink inside,” Winkle says. “If they’re not, you’re not getting enough nitrogen and might need another shot.

“That’s how some guys are breaking the 100-bushel barrier.”

5. Maturity.

“Harvest every bushel,” Winkle says. “Take the time to set the combine right and get help if you need it.

“Harvesting soybeans is a very particular operation.”

The ideal harvest window is very narrow. To beat that, Winkle tries to start cutting when soybeans reach 16% moisture and finish by the time they’ve dropped to 13% moisture.

Also important for the success of following crops is residue management.

“Spread that residue,” Winkle says. “That’s a key to really good no-till performance.”

Residue not effectively distributed can negatively impact humus, microbes, soil temperature, moisture, oxygen, pests and weed seed patterns.

6. Post-Harvest Evaluation.

As with fertility, Winkle notes it’s important to assess all the data to help with long-term planning. In addition to soil and tissue samples, producers should record yields on a yield monitor and take notes during harvest.

“Spend those down winter months going over maps and data and begin to build a multiyear plan,” Winkle says. “Developing a good plan backed by solid research is the key to unlocking higher soybean yields.”

Winkle says the most important things that can be quickly and easily addressed are lower populations, getting quality seed that hasn’t been damaged, inoculating the seed carefully and spreading residue at harvest. Don’t forget to tissue test every field.