Ultra-early beans (maturity Groups 0-II) are exciting many researchers in the Mississippi Delta's northern region, where gains in yield and production have been slow and hard to come by.

“We're very encouraged by ultra-early (UE) beans for several reasons,” says Larry Purcell, crop physiologist at the University of Arkansas. “The big one is drought-avoidance. We can get Group I and II varieties produced ahead of the normal dry weather that we have here.”

Since 1999, Purcell and other scientists have studied super-early beans at several locations in Arkansas, Tennessee and southeastern Missouri. Last year at Fayetteville, AR, Group I cultivars matured in 87 days from planting and yielded an average 53 bu/acre. Maximum yields topped 69 bu/acre.

“Without irrigation, Group I and II beans are better able to beat our late-summer drought and tend to yield well in the Midsouth,” he adds. “With irrigation, they do even better — averaging 50 bu/acre or more. Still, I'm not quite ready to recommend that a grower plant early season soybeans on hundreds of acres.”

For one thing, growing UE soybeans in Dixie requires a new management mind-set, experts say. It changes a producer's thinking to have soybeans ready to combine before the first of August.

“You need to plant them early and drill at high populations,” says Grover Shannon, University of Missouri soybean breeder at Portageville. “Here, we plant UE soybeans in mid-April at 350,000 or more plants/acre in 7.5" rows.”

Purcell likes to plant UE soybeans about April 15 — a bit later with no-till. “Planting that early, you need to use a good seed treatment to prevent damping off,” he says.

So far, Midsouth researchers have used UE cultivars developed in the Upper Midwest. Understandably, these varieties are not adapted to all of the growing conditions in the Mississippi Delta.

“We're breeding early planting, early maturing varieties that better suit our conditions,” says Shannon. “We'll have to incorporate more disease resistance, and we want UE soybeans that grow somewhat taller than those developed in the upper Corn Belt.”

There is a potential downside to UE beans in the South.

“The biggest drawback is the high seeding rate,” says Shannon. “If you're planting 350,000-400,000 plants/acre, seed cost becomes a major production expense — especially if you're growing Roundup Ready soybeans.”

These varieties will be maturing in the hottest part of summer, too, says Purcell. “Some of them are more susceptible to shattering losses.”

On the brighter side, short-season beans are ready to harvest before farmers get busy with other crops.

“They come to market sooner,” agrees Purcell. “Many years, a crop harvested in mid-summer can offer some marketing advantages. All in all, we're seeing more and more good things out of these early planted, early maturing short-season beans.

“This production system could boost the Midsouth's comparative advantage in soybeans,” he adds. “And on down the line, short-season beans have a lot of potential in double-cropping programs. We're looking at growing an early corn crop, followed by UE beans — or, growing two crops of UE soybeans per year.”