Reducing soybean production costs in 2019

Recommendations for soybean producers on reacting to low commodity prices by reducing production costs without affecting yields.

March 28, 2019 – Author: ,

Soybean market prices for the 2019-2020 marketing year are projected to be near or below the breakeven price when land costs are included. Because of this, soybean producers will need to increase efficiencies and reduce production costs in 2019. The following is a list of recommendations from Michigan State University Extension for reducing soybean production costs without significantly affecting yields.

Rotate crops

Planting soybeans after soybeans will reduce your yield potential by 5 percent after the first year. Yield reductions can exceed 10 percent the third year soybeans are planted in the same field. In addition, long-term pests such as soybean cyst nematodes (SCN) and white mold are more likely to increase when soybeans are planted after soybeans.

Reduce or eliminate tillage operations

Tillage trials conducted across the U.S. and in Ontario have shown that tillage does not significantly affect soybean yield. In some cases, no-till yields were higher than tilled yields. If your fields are relatively smooth and free from harvest ruts and your planting equipment is equipped to plant through the existing residue, consider planting without additional tillage. Tillage operations may be necessary to repair harvest ruts prior to planting and may be beneficial when planting very early (last week of April).

Select high-yielding and pest resistant varieties

Variety selection is always your most important decision when planting soybeans. By choosing varieties carefully, you can increase your yield potential by 5 to 12 bushels per acre and reduce yield losses due to white mold, sudden death syndrome, Phytophthora root and stem rot (Photo 1) and soybean cyst nematodes without any additional cost. The final step is to strategically match the varieties you selected with the pest pressure and productivity of your specific fields.

Plant soybeans early

Numerous planting date comparisons have shown that the optimum time to plant soybeans is the first week of May. Yield losses of 0.3 to 0.6 bushels per acre have been documented for each day that planting is delayed after May 8. However, it is far better to delay planting than to plant into soil that is too wet.

Reduce planting rates

In general, most agronomists agree that 100,000 uniformly spaced plants at harvest will produce the maximum economic return under most conditions. However, data collected from 40 replicated on-farm trials conducted in Michigan from 2015 to 2018 show that thin soybean stands can produce surprisingly high yields. In fact, the 100,000-seeds-per-acre planting rate was more profitable than the 130,000 and 160,000 planting rates when all 40 sites were combined and analyzed. Higher planting rates are recommended when planting into marginal soils and when planting late as these conditions limit soybean growth. Higher rates are also recommended in northern Michigan, where early maturing varieties are planted. Under good conditions, planting rates should be 15 to 20 percent higher than your intended harvest populations.

Base lime applications on soil test results

Soybeans will generally perform well at soil pH levels between 6.0 and 7.0. However, the optimal range is between 6.3 and 6.5 as this range maximizes nutrient availability and biological nitrogen fixation while minimizing soybean cyst nematode population growth. Variable rate lime applications are highly recommended to achieve more uniform soil pH levels within fields. See “Managing soil pH for optimal soybean production” for additional information on managing soil pH for soybeans.

Don’t apply nitrogen fertilizer

Hundreds of university trials have shown that nitrogen fertilizer applications to soybeans are rarely profitable. This has been confirmed in replicated on-farm trials conducted in Michigan.

Don’t apply foliar fertilizers

Manganese deficiency in soybeans
Photo 2. Manganese deficiency in soybeans. Photo by Mike Staton, MSU Extension.

Foliar fertilizer applications to soybeans are rarely profitable. This has been demonstrated in hundreds of university trials conducted across the U.S. and the Michigan SMaRT foliar fertilizer trials where only eight of the 117 replicated on-farm foliar fertilizer trials were profitable. The exception is foliar applications of manganese fertilizers, which are recommended to correct visible manganese deficiency symptoms (Photo 2).

Apply phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) fertilizers as needed to maintain critical soil test levels

The critical level for a given nutrient is the soil test level at which 95 to 97 percent of the crop’s yield potential will be reached with no additional inputs of the nutrient. The critical level for P is 15 parts per million (ppm) and the maintenance range for soybeans is 15 ppm, so P soil test levels should be maintained between 15 and 30 ppm.

The critical K level is calculated by multiplying the cation exchange capacity (CEC) by 2.5 and adding 75. For example, the critical K level for a soil having a CEC of 12 meq/100g is 105 ppm [(12 x 2.5) + 75]. The maintenance range for soybeans is 30 ppm, so the K soil test level for this soil should be maintained between 105 ppm and 135 ppm. See “Phosphorus and potassium fertilizer recommendations for high-yielding, profitable soybeans” for additional information on managing P and K.

Apply seed treatments only when warranted

Soybean seed treatments including fungicides, insecticides, inoculants and nematicides have produced inconsistent yield benefits in university trials. For example, seed treatments containing multiple fungicides and an insecticide were profitable in only five out of 21 replicated on-farm trials conducted in Michigan in 2017 and 2018. Seed treatments may be warranted when pest problems such as sudden death syndrome, or Phytophthora root rot have been verified or when planting conditions favor pest damage. Examples of planting conditions that increase the potential for pest damage include: early planting (Pythium and sudden death syndrome); planting into grass sods (white grubs and wireworms); and when manure or green plant material has been incorporated within two weeks of planting (seed corn maggot).

Consider eliminating foliar fungicide applications unless field and weather conditions are favorable for white mold

Prophylactic foliar fungicide applications have produced modest yield increases in Michigan on-farm research trials. Stratego YLD was evaluated in nine trials in 2012 and 2013, producing an average yield increase of 1.4 bushels per acre. Priaxor increased yields by 2.1 bushels per acre when averaged across 22 trials conducted in 2014 and 2015. These yield increases are not sufficient to cover product and application costs given the projected market prices.

However, foliar fungicides can be an important tool for managing white mold as they have been shown to reduce disease incidence by 0 to 80 percent in university trials. Using a combination of tactics is recommended when planting soybeans into fields having a history of white mold. These include wide rows, resistant varieties, reduced planting rates, irrigation water management, careful tillage decisions and foliar fungicides.

Select and apply herbicides to maximize weed control, minimize crop damage and reduce herbicide resistance

The MSU Weed Science Program evaluates commercially available weed control programs each year. The most profitable weed control programs year-in and year-out provide the highest level of weed control and minimize crop injury. The cost of the weed control programs is also considered, but this does not affect overall profitability as much as the level of weed control and crop injury.

Reducing production costs and improving efficiency will help soybean producers respond to the projected market prices.

This article was produced by the SMaRT project (Soybean Management and Research Technology). The SMaRT project was developed to help Michigan producers increase soybean yields and farm profitability. The SMaRT project is a partnership between MSU Extension and the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee.

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