In the South, it's common practice for rice and cotton growers to use crop consultants to scout their fields for pests and diseases each week of the growing season. Soybean growers, however, have traditionally either walked their fields themselves or relied on chemical and seed dealers to provide answers to their pesticide and fertilizer-related questions.

That may be changing. The threat of Asian soybean rust infestation, combined with potentially yield-robbing pest pressure, apparently has convinced some soybean growers that it's worth the money to use hired advisers.

Relatively few soybean growers are hiring crop consultants to scout their fields, but it may be strictly a matter of economics for some producers, says Steve Martin, an agricultural economist at the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, MS.

“The number of producers using consultants is growing. The trend started with the move toward earlier-maturing soybeans and has increased due to stinkbug damage and the possibility of rust infestation,” says Martin. “Soybean yields also have increased greatly in recent years, which may give producers the margin needed to warrant paying a consultant.”

When soybean producers were harvesting 25-30 bu./acre, a 10% gain in yield translated to only a few bushels of soybeans per acre. However, with today's per-acre soybean yields hitting 60 bu. or more in some cases, gaining even a 5% yield increase can be substantial, Martin says.

“Those extra bushels may provide the funding needed to afford a crop consultant, and hiring a crop consultant may enable growers to capture even higher yields,” he says.

According to economists, it takes about a 1.5 bu./acre yield increase to pay for a soybean crop consultant. For example, if soybeans sell for $5/bu., a 1.5 bu. yield increase would equal an extra $7.50/acre, which should be enough to pay a consultant's fee. The going rate for soybean consulting reportedly ranges from a low of $3 to a high of as much as $7/acre.

“If you've got heavy stinkbug pressure, you could easily pick up an extra bushel or two in yield with a better knowledge of your infestation level and more timely insecticide application to control the pest. The threat of Asian soybean rust also has spurred growers' interest in hiring a consultant,” Martin says. “Anything that results in a percentage reduction in yield becomes a bigger loss with today's higher yield levels.”

Any increase in pest and disease scouting likely will boost a grower's chances of recouping the cost of a consultant. The question remains, however, whether or not a grower can accomplish the same thing with increased scouting himself.

Midwestern soybean producers seem less likely than their Southern counterparts to believe in the need for a soybean crop consultant.

“Independent crop consultants have been a hard sell for soybeans in Illinois,” says Emerson Nafziger, a crop scientist with the University of Illinois. “There simply is not much going wrong to need a consultant, and I'm not sure farmers believe they can afford to have a consultant just in case.”

Nafziger says there might have been some increased interest in hiring an independent crop consultant in 2005 because of the potential for a rust outbreak. The fact that rust did not affect Midwest soybean production in 2005 probably squelched the impulse to hire a consultant for the 2006 crop season, he says.

“My impression is that soybeans are a low priority for scouting, especially since the advent of Roundup Ready soybeans has minimized the need to scout for weeds. Also, most pest problems are too inconsistent to warrant the need for a crop consultant,” he says.

There's the occasional stinkbug, but to Nafziger's knowledge, it hasn't hit most Midwestern growers' radar screens. Aphids could propel some growers to increase their level of scouting or to sign up consultants to do it for them. Even in that case, many growers would first ask someone from the company that sold them the seed to take a closer look.

“Regular scouting for aphids is not something most farmers do,” he says. “Spider mites were probably the most sprayed pest in Illinois in 2005, but again the same would apply. You normally wouldn't have hired someone back in March to scout because the pest is too inconsistent.”

Instead, Nafziger says, most soybean producers in his area use the services of company representatives and co-op employees. “As part of their service to producers, they already are walking fields, looking for potential problems,” he says.

“It's a tough sell,” Nafziger says. “If you pay an independent crop consultant $5/acre, you'd need only a 1 bu. increase to justify that expense. But it's tough to sell that service, saying that you're going to increase their yield by 1 bu. If it's that small of an increase, how will the grower ever know what caused the increase? The scout doesn't call often enough for some type of corrective action, and that's what it takes for farmers to feel they've made a good investment.”

If growers are spraying every acre of soybeans for some specific weed or pest, there may be more of a tangible benefit to hire a crop consultant. As it stands now, Nafziger says he won't be surprised if some growers in his region hire an independent consultant for their corn acreage, but believes that soybean consultants are considerably down on the list of priorities for most producers. That could change if new threats appear.

Entomologist John Raymond Bassie believes crop consultants can improve a soybean producer's bottom line.

Bassie has been scouting rice and cotton fields in and around Bolivar County, MS, for several decades, and now he's begun to scout soybean fields. “Consultants make growers more money,” he says. “We keep you from spending money you don't need to spend. Instead of making automatic sprays, we recommend spraying what's needed, when it's needed. This better enables you to control stinkbugs and disease.”

While admitting that few growers in his area currently use soybean crop consultants, Bassie says that based on his call volume, more growers are considering the practice. “I believe the trend will increase with the potential for a rust outbreak. I've had several calls this year from farmers interested in using a consultant for soybeans,” he says.

Another area crop consultant, Dan Roach, sees the need for increased scouting in soybean fields, but for the time being, he's not venturing into that arena.

An independent crop consultant based in Cleveland, MS, Roach says, “The distributorship industry is not large enough to check everything soybean growers need checked in their fields on a timely basis. There just aren't enough people out there that work for the chemical and seed dealers.”

What's more, he says, “When it takes $3.25/bu. to grow a rice crop, and the market is only willing to pay a nickel per bushel above loan, many growers are looking to other crops to insure profitability. Current economic conditions could put next year's rice acreage down by as much as 40% in Mississippi, which is likely to push soybean acreage even higher.”

That, he says, could necessitate the need for a crop consultant for some larger soybean growers. “Having someone checking fields on a regular basis should improve the timing of crop inputs,” Roach says.