Wade Kent is a researcher who put his money where his data is. When his research showed that narrow-row soybeans with normal inputs consistently produced the same results as 30-in. rows with the full dose of high-end inputs, he bought a narrow-row planter. “A narrow-row planter will give me a full canopy early and help maximize soybean yields.”
The study results were not unusual. Land grant university researchers have documented a yield advantage for narrow-row soybeans since before Kent was born. Soybean rows are getting wider at the same time that sophisticated research consistently shows the yield advantage from narrow-row soybeans. USDA statistics says the number of acres planted to 30-in. rows in Illinois jumped from 18% to 29% in five years.
A DuPont Pioneer study confirms a widely held opinion that acres planted to 30-in. rows have increased in almost all parts of North American in the last few years. In Iowa and Minnesota, more than 40% of the acres are already in 30 in. rows.
The study that Kent was working on is commonly known as the Kitchen Sink study (http://usb-extremebeans.com/). Researchers in six states spent three years using every commonly used soybean yield booster to see how high they could push soybean yields. Then they strategically withdrew each high-yield input and measured the effect on yield. Narrow-row soybeans consistently beat out wide-row soybeans, even when researchers added the high end “kitchen sink” package that included foliar fungicides, foliar fertilizer, added dry fertilizer, seed treatments and seed inoculants to the 30-in. production system. In other words, applying a high-cost package of inputs in a wide-row system did not match the natural yield advantage of narrow-row soybeans. (Full results of the soy checkoff-funded Kitchen Sink study are available at usb-extremebeans.com and were also featured in the August 2012 issue of Corn & Soybean Digest.)
For growers like Steve Brusven, the data is convincing. “The whole key is yield. Narrow rows capture more sunlight and give us more chances to convert that sunlight into soybeans.” The Cottonwood, Minn., farmer has planted 22-in. rows for 20 years and has no plans to go wider. He points to research showing a 3-4-bu. increase from narrow rows and says he is focused on trying to boost yields even further with precision use of fungicides, nitrogen at R3 and other Kitchen Sink tools. “Prices are good and I want to do everything I can to force better yields, “ he says.
The hurdle to narrow row beans is the fact that 85% of U.S. corn is planted in 30-in. rows. And, as Kent, the farmer/soybean researcher, says, “Corn is more profitable and it performs best in 30-in. rows. Growers are moving to larger equipment to cover more acres, and 90-ft.-wide planters are most common in 30-in. row configurations.”
Greg Langer knows the trend well. He’s a recently retired Deere dealer who says, “Even with the yield advantage, most farmers today are not in a mood to keep two planters in tip top shape.” During his career, Langer watched all the mechanical solutions to row spacing – hanging additional units on corn planters, drills, skip rows and more. He says today’s farmers are increasingly making a management decision to put their time and money into one good planter that provides accurate seed placement and can be used for both crops. And some growers are concerned that the earlier canopy could lead to white mold problem, he says. “One bad experience with white mold makes a grower cautious about doing anything that would cause it to happen again.” The soybeans on the 240 acres he farms with his brother near Northfield, Minn., are in 30-in. rows. “We know we could get a few more bushels per acre with narrower rows, but we don’t want the cost and time required to do that.”
Time is a precious commodity for all farmers, and with increased acres the time available for planting is shrinking. Growers point to a 10-day window to get the crop planted and as one of the intangibles that drive row-width decisions.
A 2008 Iowa State (ISU) study looked at the tangible costs and found farm size impacts the profitability of narrow-row soybeans. The study conducted by Jason DeBruin, former University of Minnesota grad student currently with Pioneer and Palle Pederson, former ISU Extension soybean agronomist currently with Syngenta, found that a 355-acre farm with a 50/50 corn-soy mix could justify the additional expenses associated with planting narrow-row beans.
Fewer acres of soybeans and the numbers didn’t work. A 1,000-acre farm only needs about a bushel of increase to justify narrow rows, while the yield increase needed dropped to half a bushel or less on 2,500-acre farms. The researchers assumed new equipment purchases to make their calculations.
Every grower will make their own individual cost analysis based on their situation. Seth Naeve, University of Minnesota agronomist, worries that narrow-row soybeans are getting lost in the recent surge in equipment decisions and that a farmer who purchases a wider row planter will be locked into leaving soybean yields in the fields for years. “I’m not trying to dictate what farmers have in their machine shed, but I’m trying to encourage farmers to think about hanging on to a narrow-row planter for soybeans.”Naeve is realistic about the challenges in trying to convince growers to plant in narrow rows. “Most farmers don't ‘believe’ that there is a yield penalty for wide rows because they don't have a good way of testing. Doubting the narrow-row yield advantage makes buying a new planter a lot easier.”