Putting an agricultural twist on the old saying about the early bird getting the worm, it's also fair to say that early beans get the bushels.

University of Nebraska (NU) trials have shown that early beans get more yield than later-planted plants. That's up to a 15-bu advantage for beans planted a month early, on March 28 of last year, compared to ones planted a month later than normal, on June 4, says Paul Jasa, NU ag engineer. Early planted beans also showed a significant advantage over traditionally planted beans (May 10).

In Ohio, Fayette County ag extension agent Larry Lotz got similar results in 1998. But he believes farmers are looking for more data before they plant many beans early.

"There's interest," Lotz says. "More farmers are looking at planting in early April. Before, all they thought about was corn. We're not going to promote planting soybeans on Groundhog Day. But in no-till it might be a good idea to plant beans first and then plant corn."

Bloomingburg, OH, farmer Fred Melvin tried early planted soybeans for the first time in 1999. Although dry conditions prevented any valid comparisons, he intends to plant some beans early again this year. Last year he planted April 2; this year he'll try closer to April 20.

"The beans did have to sit there quite awhile before they came up," he says. "We'll try Roundup Ready soybeans for the first time. It's hard to get preplant herbicides down to take care of the weeds you have by planting that early." Winter annuals proved the toughest problem in early planted beans for Melvin in 1999.

The advantages of early planted beans are more than just yield, however, Jasa says. By opening your planting window wider, you also increase your machinery efficiency.

"When you plant part of your soybean crop before you plant any corn, you can cover a lot more acres," he says. "It's a simple way to compensate for limited equipment or labor capacity. It allows you to farm more acres with the same equipment, or farm the same number of acres with less equipment."

Planting some of your soybeans ahead of corn also helps you spread production risk, Jasa points out. "With some beans planted early and the rest at a more traditional planting date, you've got plants flowering and setting pods at two different times. In our 1999 tests, early planted beans were already filling when dry weather hit in early August. The later-planted beans were just starting to fill and took a yield hit."

There's no doubt that some years you might have to replant early beans due to extended cold, wet weather or a late frost. "The added profit from the years you don't replant will more than pay for the years you do," says Jasa. "I'm a lot more concerned about an early frost in the fall than I am a late frost in the spring."

Planting beans early is a no-till-only practice, adds Jasa. "You want to plant into cold, wet soil with plenty of residue cover. Tilled soils tend to warm up too fast early in the spring. The early planted soybeans tend to germinate and then get killed by a frost.

"Under no-till conditions, when the soil warms up enough for the seed to germinate, the threat of a killing frost is usually past. The residue in a no-till field tends to act as insulation and provides protection if there is a frost. That's why you don't want to use residue movers when you plant."

Jasa recommends that you plant soybean seed 13/4-2" deep at your normal seeding rate when you plant early. "Planted deep, the seed won't germinate as readily if you get one really warm day."

The seed you plant does need the protection of a fungicide to survive those early planting conditions. Jasa chose seed coated with a four-way fungicide treatment. "Check with your dealer to see what fungicide was used on the seed you select," he says. "The main threat is pythium, and not all fungicides are effective against it." Any maturity group will work, according to Jasa, as long as it's recommended for your area.

For farmers in the western Corn Belt, Jasa recommends April 1 as a good target date for planting beans early. "Farther east, wet fields may be more of an issue. Weather patterns might be a bigger consideration than the calendar."

Early planted soybeans were either "the best" or "replanted," according to farmers at a grower meeting put on by Jack Walker, Novartis technical information manager in West Alexandria, OH. Nearly 20% of the farmers attending the meeting had tried early planted soybeans.

Walker sees two reasons for the farmer-driven interest in early planted soybeans. One is that farmers are farming more acres over wider geographies. "They're not just farming one field one mile down the road, but 20 miles away," he says. The second reason is bigger equipment. If conditions are right, some farmers run their drills and corn planters at the same time.

That allows farmers to plant on a more timely basis and avoid yield loss due to delayed planting, according to Walker. "All farmers have been hurt by delayed planting. In their minds early planting is a good risk to take."

But, Walker warns, you can't just plant by the calendar. "I'd never recommend early planting unless soil conditions are right," he says. "You can't mud in the beans. You need get good seed-to-soil contact."