Spreadsheets are a lot like a shell game. You can get whatever result you want with a little sleight of hand, or data.

But the numbers for soybeans look good these days no matter how you calculate them. With beans closing above $12/bu. for January 2008 delivery, even 50-bu. beans looked good. The numbers really jump if you can legitimately pencil in yields of 65 bu. or better.

Risk management consultant Moe Russell, Russell Consulting Group, Panora, IA, put together the spreadsheet on page 10 that shows what a few changes in your soybean production system can mean to the bottom line.

The spreadsheet compares a traditional corn-soybean rotation with continuous corn and a corn-soybean rotation with cultural practices aimed at increasing yields to 75 bu./acre. There's plenty of data to show the genetic potential for that yield level — if growers are willing to manage their crops to get it.

“Current soybean varieties have the potential to yield more than 100 bu./acre,” says Iowa State University (ISU) Extension Soybean Agronomist Palle Pedersen. “But, this potential is almost never realized in a field environment.”

Answers for how to get that potential to the field are on the way. The United Soybean Board (USB) recently announced it's funding a three-year research effort, involving six land-grant universities, aimed at pushing soybean yields to higher, more profitable levels.

“Most soybean producers are giving up easy bushels,” says Pedersen. He will spearhead the research program that includes ISU; Michigan State University; and the universities of Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Minnesota. The project will start in fall 2008 and continue through 2011.

It will collect data to better understand the yield correlation between genetics and agronomic practices, according to Pedersen. USB will spend nearly $500,000/year funding the research.

After genetics, planting date is one of the biggest contributors to high-yield soybeans. Early planted soybeans simply build a “bigger factory” with the potential for more soybeans. But early planted beans require more management.

“The biggest misconception is that we plant early just to plant early, and then ignore everything else,” Pedersen says. “By planting early, you have the potential to significantly increase yield potential. This does not mean that you can do everything the same way as when you planted mid-May.

“Early planting takes more management, and things like variety selection are more critical now since plants are more vulnerable to soil-borne pathogens such as sudden death syndrome,” he says. “Early planting a variety without any resistance to both sudden death syndrome and soybean cyst nematode is like playing roulette.

“Another important factor that requires weekly scouting is the over-wintering generation of bean leaf beetles. Frequent scouting is critical to be sure that no ‘easy’ bushels are lost from them,” Pedersen says. “The bottom line is that farmers should not hold back from planting early because they can easily manage bean leaf beetles, and it will only cost a fraction to manage them, if needed, compared to the yield loss from delayed planting.”

THOSE ADDITIONAL COSTS are reflected in Russell's spreadsheet. With early planted soybeans, seed treatment isn't an option, it's a given. Two in-season insecticide treatments and a single fungicide treatment are included in his calculations. The fungicide treatment may not be required every growing season.

For simplicity, Russell added a $13.05/acre planting charge for the high-yield soybeans, figuring the easiest way for farmers to try early planting initially is to have the beans custom planted. That figure is the average cost from ISU's custom machinery rate guide for a planter with fertilizer and insecticide attachments.

The numbers look more mundane if you drop soybean yields to 65 bu. under the high-yield system. At that level, gross revenue from sales drops to $526.50, return to labor and management settles just a hair under $10 less than conventionally grown beans and the return on investment drops 10 points.

Russell used the same corn yield average for both rotation corn and continuous corn — a point that can be argued.

With high rents and average yields, continuous corn doesn't fare well on Russell's spreadsheet. In fact, it falls just short of breakeven. You can argue with the numbers, or rearrange the shell game, but costs have caught up to the market in 2008. “Even with our most efficient clients, we're seeing breakevens for corn at $3.10/bu. in Iowa and $3.40/bu. for irrigated growers,” he says. “For soybeans it's $6.70/bu, and that's for our top producers.”

Williamsburg, IA, farmer Eric Jones starts to plant soybeans April 20, and uses one 24-row planter for corn and a second for soybeans. “We've tried starting on April 15, but nearly got hit with a frost just as the beans were starting to crack,” he says. “If we wait until the 20th, the beans start to crack about May 1. Anything planted after May 5 starts to lose yield.”

Jones, who farms with his brother Terry, gets his best bean yields in a corn-corn-beans rotation. “We beat the county average by 15 bu./acre,” he says. Jones has averaged 65-bu. beans over 2,000 acres in previous years, while 2007 yields dipped to 62 bu./acre.

Weekly scouting dictates mid-summer applications of insecticide and fungicide on Jones' acres. “Fungicide treatment will pay for itself,” he says. “Plants are healthier longer and stay green. Although sometimes that makes them more difficult to harvest.”

High-yield soybeans contradict the Roundup Ready mentality of “plant, spray and forget about it” that many growers have developed, according to David Wright, director of contract research and strategic initiatives for the Iowa Soybean Association.

“Roundup Ready technology makes soybean farming easy,” he says. “It's good for weed control. The fields are clean and landlords are happy. But it's caused farmers to stop managing their soybean crop. For maximum yields you need to manage soybeans as intensively as you do corn. If you don't, it's costing you money.”

THE IOWA SOYBEAN Association has funded Pedersen's high-yield studies at ISU for a number of years. Wright sees the new multi-university study as building on that preliminary work. “Palle's leadership really has been leading the effort in high-yield soybeans the past few years. Midwest growers also have been benefiting from work done in the South that has shown significant yield increases with early planting of short-season beans that help avoid stress,” he says.

You can create your own spreadsheet at Pedersen's Web site, http://extension.agron.iastate.edu/soybean/ and click on “Determine your Corn and Soybean Rotation for 2008.” The spreadsheet gives you the option of a corn-corn-soybean rotation, also.

“With the combined research of six universities, we think it's possible farmers will be able to consistently harvest 65-70-bu. soybeans. We hope to enable producers to realize that yield loss comes from multiple sources,” Wright says. “Conversely, it's not just one factor that creates high yields. To get consistently high yields, it takes a combination of production practices and management decisions.”