Most growers in west-central Kentucky plant Group IV soybeans. So does Darren Luttrell, who grows 2,800 acres of crops near Olaton.

But Luttrell hedges his bets by planting Group II beans on at least a third of his soybean acres. He's been spreading his crop across maturity groups for the past eight years. Now other western Kentucky growers are picking up the practice.

"I first planted short-season beans in 1991," Luttrell reports. "We grew a Burleson mid-Group II variety. They made 40 bushels per acre, compared with nearly 50 bushels for Group IV soybeans. Last year, we averaged 49 bushels per acre overall, including about 300 acres planted after wheat."

Luttrell plants his Group II beans first - by mid-May, if possible, when he can get the drill in the field that early.

"We can harvest Group II soybeans four months after planting, almost to the day," he adds. "Shorter-season beans hang in and yield even with about anything else we grow."

Luttrell first considered early maturing soybeans as a way to spread his weather risk. Western Kentucky gets a period of hot, dry weather virtually every summer - sometimes early, sometimes later in the growing season. Larry Grabau, a University of Kentucky agronomist, had been studying short-season beans, including a test plot on Luttrell's farm. Group II soybeans performed well, so Luttrell gave them a trial planting.

"The past few years, we have spread the weather risk even more, by planting a third of our bean acreage to Group II, Group III and Group IV varieties," he says. "We plant soybeans in that order, and harvest in the same sequence."

As he gained experience with early maturing beans, Luttrell noticed other advantages. For one thing, he runs 2,800 acres of crops through a single combine. Having short-season soybeans ready to harvest in early September spreads his labor and machinery over a longer harvest season.

"Most years, those early harvested beans hit a good market," he says. "When we combine our Group II beans in September, there aren't many new-crop soybeans coming on the market yet."

Luttrell's farm is close to good market outlets. Forty miles north puts him at the Ohio River terminal at Owensboro, and 35 miles south is the Purdue poultry feed mill.

"This year, we sold Group II beans before mid-September and earned a good premium on them."

But there are some drawbacks to growing Group II soybeans in Group IV country. One is the availability of seed.

"Some dealers don't want to sell Group II beans this far south," says Luttrell. "We sometimes have to order a semi load to get the beans we want."

Group II soybean plants typically are shorter - more trouble to combine.

"And there's more weed pressure with short-season beans. When we combine beans in August or September, any weeds in the field will still be green and growing."

But for him the pluses outweigh the minuses. His neighbors have even stopped giving his combine strange looks when it knives through a bean field in midsummer.

"The first couple of years, when we were harvesting in mid-August, we attracted quite a bit of curiosity," he says.