Winning yield contests takes knowledge, skill and, often, a little luck. For some winners, their reward is not just about hitting new yield highs, but about fine-tuning their production practices. These three state soybean contest winners have made some profitable discoveries on their quests for more bushels, and they’re happy to share strategies that have worked best for them.

 

Second fungicide pass

With 10 years of corn-yield contests under his belt, John Breedlove was not exactly green when he entered the 2011 Illinois Soybean Challenge. The Manito, Ill., grower liked the contest’s team concept of working with his agronomist at Sunrise Ag Services, in Havana. “It’s great to have someone help you set up your trials and document yield response,” he says.

“Every year I try to change one aspect of my management. Last year I added a second fungicide application,” he says. “I hadn’t necessarily seen severe fungal damage to my crops, but I had a hunch there might be more of problem with our irrigated crop than was visible.”

Breedlove’s hunch proved to be a profitable one. On half of his 10-acre test plot, he made his usual one fungicide application when the crop was about 4 in. tall. On the other half, he added a second application at bloom stage. “There was a 6-bu. yield advantage from the two applications,” he says. “An increase of between 1 and 1.5 bu. would have paid for the cost of the fungicide, so it’s a no-brainer to use a second treatment.”

This season Breedlove experimented with a late-season application of 100 lbs. each of K and manganese on 60 acres of soybeans, just before his crop reached the bloom stage. “A lot of my ground is sandier and doesn’t hold the K. I’ve tried it on my corn crop before and have gotten better test weights and a general greener appearance.”

 

Boosting organic matter

Joe Zenz has been 100% no-till since he started farming near Lancaster, Wis., 15 years ago. He attributes his 92.8-bu. 2011 soybean yields in part to that practice and his soils’ overall high organic-matter levels. Last year he won top honors in the dryland category of his state’s yield contest.

“The role of organic matter levels is huge in maximizing crop yields,” he says. “I plant cereal rye in the fall, then spray it with glyphosate in the spring, about two weeks before I plant. Originally I used the rye on my corn-on-corn acres because it seems to help break down the previous crop residue more quickly. Last fall I tried it on corn stalks before soybeans, and that seemed to work well, too.”

He drills his soybeans to get an early canopy that helps reduce weed pressure, and always uses an inoculant. “You get better nodulation on the beans, and it seems to even carry over to the next corn crop.”

 

Treating seed pays two-fold

Soybeans are not the main crop at the Riegel farm, near Washington, Mo., but Steve Riegel applied the same principles to that crop as the family does to its dairy operation. Not taking any management practices for granted, he set out to confirm the value of each crop input, starting with seed treatments.

“In several years of side-by-side field tests, we realized a 5-6-bu./acre increase from fields planted with treated seed versus non-treated seed,” he says. “The consistently better emergence from the treated seed allowed us to cut back on plant populations slightly. We also saw the beans get off to a healthier start and look greener.”

Fungicide is another input that has consistently proven its worth to the 2011 Missouri Soybean Yield Contest winner in the conventional category. “We’ve seen an average of 5-6 bu./acre more from the fields where we use a fungicide, and as much as 11 bu./acre more in some years. At today’s prices, just 1 bu. extra pays for the cost of the application.”

Early weed control was a big challenge this year, he says. “Any weeds at all will interfere with yield. But this spring was very wet here, which made it hard to get into fields to make our first post-emergence herbicide application.”

That was one of the reasons Riegel didn’t enter the yield contest this season. The lack of rain throughout the summer lowered his expectations for this year’s crop, as well. But he’s already looking ahead to next season.

“This past summer we cleaned out the sludge at the bottom of our lagoon and applied that on our fields, so I expect our overall fertility should be great for next year’s crop,” he says.

 

Beyond titles: why growers compete

Yield contest value goes way beyond titles and prizes. For these farmers, it’s less about bragging rights and more about boosting their bottom line that motivates them to participate. While each has a different set of management challenges, they all share a common thirst for knowledge.

Here’s what these winners say they gain from participating.

Set specific goals – For Joe Zenz of Lancaster, Wis., yield contests make him set specific yield goals. “My long-term yield goal is to hit the triple digits, but I don’t necessarily expect to do that in a year. If I can keep making a few bushels of progress each year, I think I’ll get there.”
Keep better records – Entering a contest makes you commit to a plan and keep good records, says Manito, Ill., farmer John Breedlove. For that, it helps that he can work with his agronomist at Sunrise Ag Service, Havana, Ill. “The Illinois Soybean Challenge requires that you team with your suppliers, which is a real benefit. Plus, we’re usually trying new things on a smaller scale this way, so it feels like less of a gamble.”

Access more resources – Being a winner in the 2011 Missouri yield contest gained Steve Riegel access to a broader group of agronomic experts, says the Washington, Mo., farmer. “For me, the biggest perk was being invited to a lot of industry meetings, and getting a trip to Commodity Classic. I got to talk to so many people and learned a lot.”

Try new things – All three growers say participating in yield contests spurs them to keep trying new things. “I spend a lot of time in the winter months attending meetings and trade shows to learn about new products and varieties, and to get ideas about improving my crop management,” says Zenz. “By making changes over the years, I’ve seen real yield increases.”