Kansas may be called the sunflower state, but its farmers are taking to soybeans like ducks to water. And many are cranking out some dandy yields, too.

"Kansas has increased its soybean acreage by well over a half million acres during the last five years, marking five straight years acreage has increased," notes Kevin Compton, a former state soybean association president and present board member from Hiawatha. "Kansas is fast becoming a major producer of soybeans."

Generally, the Soybean Belt is expanding westward, and it's happening big time in states like North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.

What are the reasons? Compton ticks off several. Freedom to Farm, which gives farmers the freedom to choose crop alternatives, is a big one.

Mediocre wheat profits is another. The need for another rotation crop is important. No-till is a major reason, too, because it holds moisture better than conventional tillage. Better varieties also help.

Ken McCauley of White Cloud concurs. But he thinks the biggest reasons are cost-cutting no-till and flat-out better profits for soybeans than for wheat, the biggest loser to soybean expansion.

McCauley's wife, Mary, was asked if they're still optimistic about the future of raising soybeans in Kansas, despite decades-low prices. "You bet!" she answered, without hesitation.

McCauley agrees and says that he doesn't think sky-high prices are the answer to that future. "Then everybody will raise more, including Brazilian and Argentine farmers, and simply wreck the profit picture again."

However, he acknowledges that, without government help in the form of loan deficiency payments, Freedom-to-Farm transition payments and disaster assistance for areas hit hard by drought, etc., things would be rough.

Despite the challenges now and down the road, he's optimistic that, with high management and enough acres, growers will be able to garner good returns with soybeans.

Both McCauleys think the name of the game is pushing yields high enough to squeeze down per-bushel production costs so you don't need $7 beans to turn a decent profit.

"Yield per acre is the driving factor," McCauley notes. "If you can raise 3-5 more bushels per acre than most others, there's your edge."

Kansas is producing a bunch of gung ho soybean growers like the McCauleys. And across the state's eastern half, they're knocking out some bin-busting yields on sizable acreages.

Example: For three years running, the McCauleys have had 70-plus bushel yields in the state's yield contest. Starting in 1997, they topped the northeast district with 71.77 bu/acre. In '98, theirs was the highest dryland entry in the state, at 71.8 bu, and in '99, it was 70.6. Obviously, their whole-farm averages weren't 70 bu. But they averaged 52 bu/acre last year.

The McCauley farm is in the extreme northeastern corner of the state. Though highly erosive, it has productive soil.

In 1999, severe drought ravaged yields even for some pretty good managers, and 10-bu/acre yields were reported in southeastern Kansas.

Here are some of their key management factors in squeezing out higher yields:

Variety selection. "That's everything," McCauley says. "I figure I can't afford to plant anything but the top two or three varieties available.

"On varieties, you can't ride an old horse very long and stay competitive. They're improving new variety numbers every year. Yet there are some farmers still growing 10-year-old varieties."

Earlier planting. "Many guys haven't picked up on that at all here," he says. "They still think you've got to plant beans toward the end of May, and here we need to be out there about the first of May and be done by about the 10th. The last several years, the yield contest fields have all been planted the first week of May."

Soil pH and fertility. Soil pH is hard to maintain because lime is scarce in that area. With the help of pell lime, the McCauleys hold pH at 6-6.5, but would prefer 6.5-6.8.

Fertility? Zinc is needed in that area, and the McCauleys want P and K soil tests in the high range. By treating low-fertility areas in fields (about 20% of acreage), they increased yields by 5 bu/acre.

No-till. The McCauleys now have two Kinze split-row planters - an eight-row and a new 16-row to plant corn in 30" rows, beans in 15" rows.

"Our ground is so much more mellow and manageable than it was before no-till," he says. "And I firmly believe that no-till will make you more profit in Kansas."

Weed control. "Some people say a few weeds don't hurt," says McCauley. Well, eventually, a few weeds can turn into a lot. You've got to have clean fields for top results." ?