Soybeans are claiming new acres as a substitute crop in the Red River Valley and fringe areas of North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota.

The reasons: Barley and wheat have suffered from scab, midge continues to decimate sunflowers, and prices for most of the usual crops are in the tank.

So soybeans are increasingly being looked at in this area as the possible "salvation crop."

"Farmers in this region realize they need to diversify to reduce their risks," says Jerry Nordick, Rothsay, MN, grower. "That's why the Soybean Belt has moved 100 miles farther north in just the last three years alone."

Handled right, soybeans definitely offer better profit opportunities than small grains. That's why they're catching on with more farmers in this area.

In almost every regard, however, farmers are learning that management must be approached differently than in the more soybean-friendly areas of the Corn Belt.

The challenges start with yields, according to Nordick.

"Yields average only 30-35 bu an acre, with up to 40-bu yields on prime ground," he says. "Then there's the matter of a wider basis, 50-60 cents/bu, at market time. This is due to being at the end of the pipeline rather than near the main terminals and ports."

With a shorter growing season, variety selection is more limited, too, says Dave Franzen, North Dakota State University extension soil specialist.

Franzen cautions that many soils are often high in free limestone and soluble salts. This appears to cause iron chlorosis, or "yellow soybeans."

Chlorotic areas may make up as much as one-half to three-fourths of a field or be scattered throughout a field. This makes herbicide application more difficult, since the affected soybeans are susceptible to burning or stunting. The problem is compounded by cool, wet weather.

"Chlorosis might cause yellowing for only a week or two in the central Corn Belt. Here, soybeans may stay yellow for a couple months, or they may not ever green up," Franzen points out.

"Given the stress it causes, there are surely times when yield reductions result from early season chlorosis. So plant only chlorosis-tolerant varieties," he says.

Nordick agrees: "The combination of high-pH and high-salt concentrations can just wipe out soybeans. I've seen vast variety differences concerning salt tolerance."

Any kind of stress also seems to reduce nodulation. "Recommending nitrogen for soybeans is rare in the central Corn Belt," says Franzen. "But, because of early season stresses, it appears to be a needed practice. Beans require that little extra help early in the season.

"Our recommendation is 50 lbs of nitrogen an acre, based on the results of soil tests. The University of Minnesota's recommendation for the northwestern part of that state is up to 75 lbs of nitrogen."

Nordick says he's learned that some sandy loam soils also need sulfur and phosphate. And, often, soil tests of ground previously in corn or sugar beets show sufficient nitrogen carryover.

The stress caused by cool soils, high levels of free lime, carbonate minerals and salt, plus low iron, may also prevent young soybeans from easily starting to generate their own nitrogen.

"That's why we're pretty aggressive in recommending inoculation," Franzen says.

He adds that farmers in the region are used to putting fertilizer with the seed, a practice that's a "real challenge" to change, yet necessary when growing soybeans.

And while recommendations say a small amount of phosphate can be put with seed when using an air seeder or 6- to 10"-row drill, Franzen says broadcasting is the preferred method.

"Soybeans are so sensitive to fertilizer placement," Nordick continues. "To test this I once experimented with 5 gallons an acre of 10-34-0 down the tube for a few rounds. Basically, this produced a 50% stand loss."

Another carryover in a region where pinto and navy beans are traditional crops is the application of zinc. "Farmers think that because soybeans are also a legume they'll respond to zinc, too. But we really don't see the response in soybeans," says Franzen.

Planting dates are continually moving earlier, too, according to Nordick. The grower says that now it's thought the earlier the better, even as soon as May 5 in his area.

"We're still in the learning stage about row widths," Franzen says.

Many planters are already set up for sugar beets in 22" rows. Air seeders are also common, since so many farmers have them for use with other crops.

Nordick has had his best yields with 12" or narrower rows. However, white mold has been troublesome in some solid-seeded fields in Minnesota.

The biggest hurdle to jump: rotational restrictions.

"We must manage our rotations for prevention of soilborne diseases such as rhizoctonia root rot," says Nordick. "It's starting to be a problem for some soybean growers."

However, adding soybeans to a rotation adds nitrogen to the soil and may break disease cycles.

"I feel that I consistently gain a 5-bu/acre yield by seeding wheat on soybean ground vs. wheat following wheat," Nordick says. "And I've heard other farmers say the increase is as much as 10 bu an acre.

"In 1997, my wheat-on-soybean ground had only 11/2-2% scab damage. Meanwhile, my wheat-on-corn ground had 13% scab damage. That's obviously a rotation to avoid."