In a year like this when every input dollar must be scrutinized, it's nice to know there are some good things available for your soybean crop that don't cost anything. Some you may not have thought of, but they do indeed provide benefits. Here's my list of soybean freebies:

* Productive potential of soils. Some soil types possess more productive potential for top soybean yields than others. This is a freebie, in a sense, because all good soil types in an area rent or sell for the same general amount, especially if their use for cropping is similar.

In the South, some of the predominant soils have the yield potential in a good year for 40-50 bu/acre, while adjacent soils that are sandy or poorly drained may have potential for only 25-30 bu. It's up to the farmer to know the soils he's farming.

How does he find out? Yield records are best, and yield monitor technology for combines helps. Also, the local Natural Resources Conservation Service office has county soil surveys that provide details on area soils, especially about the productive potential of soils for different crops.

* Varietal resistance to diseases. This one can put profit in your pocket. Certain varieties have genetic resistance to diseases like stem canker, frogeye leafspot, phytophthora, and to nematodes like soybean cyst and root-knot.

Farmers who have reason to expect trouble from diseases like these should consider resistance, since it basically costs nothing. Private and public breeders have incorporated disease resistance into most of their varieties and use it as a key selling point to farmers.

* Nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Did you know that roughly 250 lbs of nitrogen is needed for a 50-bu soybean crop? Do you know where it comes from? Some comes from the soil, but the vast majority is manufactured from the atmosphere by N-fixing bacteria in the nodules.

For most fields with a history of soybeans, there is no need to buy an inoculant - the bacteria live in the soil. Even if an inoculant is needed, the cost is minimal, and the nitrogen provided to the plant is still free.

* Residual moisture and nutrients. Perhaps the most ignored of all the freebies available for soybean farmers are the nutrients left by the previous crop(s), and moisture that may be available in the subsoil or clay. Soil samples provide the best assessment of the crop-available nutrients, and there's a good chance last year's cotton, corn, tobacco or peanut crop left lots of some kinds.

In areas of the South that experienced drought in '99, significant quantities of both phosphorus and potassium may be present for this year's soybean crop. There probably is no better crop for using residual nutrients than soybeans.

For the drought-prone sandy Coastal Plain soils of the Southeast, moisture in the subsoil, and the nutrients that have leached there, are best accessed by crop roots with the help of deep tillage for breaking the hardpans. For wide-row beans, it's the subsoiler. But for narrow-row or drilled beans, the Terra-Max from Worksaver and paratill plows are the most efficient, especially for conservation tillage systems.

* Competitiveness of soybean plants. Another freebie is the overall ability of soybeans to compete with weeds. Farmers who are drilling depend on this fact to help reduce the need for certain postemergence herbicide applications.

In fact, the first step for a good weed control program is getting a stand of healthy plants that form a quick canopy to shade most weeds and grasses. Corn and cotton are much slower in achieving crop canopy, and therefore must depend much longer on the effectiveness of herbicides and/or cultivation for weed control.

* Beneficial insects. Some California farmers actually must buy beneficial insects to help control insect pests on their crops. In soybeans, however, insects like certain wasps and the big-eyed bug are available in most fields for helping control destructive pests like corn earworms, velvetbean caterpillars and soybean loopers.

Viruses and other parasitic diseases also help control the latter two species, often reducing the need for insecticides, especially if the farmer does a good job of scouting from bloom through the reproductive period.

Advice ...

In 2000, when making the right decisions on production and marketing is so critical, good advice may be the most important freebie for farmers. Extension agents and specialists, as well as dealers and company representatives, can offer advice and assistance at no cost. Other government agencies, both state and federal, also have folks that can help.

Don't hesitate to call, visit, or email these people and don't be afraid to ask any question you may have. It certainly can reduce the risks of making bad decisions.