The cost of all seed keeps rising, but the price of soybean seed seems to rankle growers the most these days. Many crop farmers are not convinced they should be paying as much as they do, based on the modest performance improvements soybeans have demonstrated since the mid-1990s. Corn performance, in comparison, has increased by leaps and bounds, and a bit of frustration is natural.
However, there are many legitimate reasons why corn has seen such exceptional production advances and soybeans have not. “Firstly, because corn is a hybrid, it’s easier to breed for better yield,” says Michael Strang, a cash crop farmer and owner of Better Cropping Solutions, a consulting firm near Exeter, Ontario.
Hybrids also represent an inherently better investment for companies, so there is a lot more incentive to improve performance. “Wheat or soybeans don’t provide nearly the return that corn does because corn seed has to be purchased every year,” says Martin Harry, eastern marketing manager at SeCan.
“It’s well known in the seed industry that a company needs to start in corn, establish itself, and then introduce a soybean line,” adds Strang.
In addition, government research has been somewhat heavier in corn. Strang theorizes this is because it is a larger user of environmentally sensitive nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. “Also,” he notes, “traditionally, corn has been a more important crop in Ontario, and that mentality continues today.”
Lastly, corn has not faced the same pest challenges as soybeans have, providing it another avenue to better performance. “There has definitely been a fairly dramatic increase in the pest spectrum of soybeans, which is not the case for corn,” says Strang. That spectrum includes aphids, soybean cyst nematode and bean leaf beetles.
Work the system However, Doug Alderman, national sales manager at Pride Seeds, says that 2009 and 2010 have shown that the tides are shifting for soybean performance. Yields have increased significantly, and in his opinion, this is due to farmers changing their practices as well as recent marked improvements in genetics. “Corn has benefited from a ‘systems thinking approach’ for a long time,” Alderman says. “Some have applied this thinking to soybeans recently with great results, and we need to continue that trend.”
Simply put, “systems thinking” involves combining technology advances in a more intensive management approach. By working the system approach, Alderman observes, “growers have realized 15 to 20 percent better yields, and I believe we’re at the tipping point of huge advancements to take us to the next level.”
Strang agrees. “I believe if producers paid as much attention to their soybean crop as they do to their corn crop, they would be rewarded with much better yields,” he says. “The robustness of the soybean plant works against it, in that it lends itself to be managed less intensively.”
The first step in moving to a systems approach with soybeans, says Alderman, is to pay attention to seed populations, managing this according to row widths, soil types and agronomic conditions. “We also want to protect the seed,” he adds. “Like corn, we need to look at giving the seed a real chance to combat soilborne pests and pathogens in its first days of life, as well as early season insect stresses such as aphids and the bean leaf beetle.” Technologies in seed treatments can be used to give the young plant a good start, as well as pre-inoculants to ensure nitrogen fixation and improved nodulation. This approach, combined with new genetics, allows for lower seeded populations, thus managing seed costs, and ultimately gives greater yields and higher net returns from every acre.
Another part of the systems approach is weed control. “Glyphosate resistance in Canada is the direct result of not using a rotation and of relying exclusively on glyphosate,” Alderman notes. “Growing crops such as wheat and corn in a rotation provides the option to use low-cost herbicides that are effective in controlling a broad spectrum of broadleaf weeds.”
With the low cost today of glyphosate today, he adds, “There’s no reason why producers should not be using the full rate.”
Getting back to basics and spreading risk
Strang says that as with any crop, producers should also have a strong focus on soil structure and nutrients; making sure the seed is going into a good seedbed.
“Growers should manage their corn residue more effectively, starting with looking at how your combine distributes residue and also how the planter handles the residue,” he says. “Basically, with no-till beans, I believe that the planter openers should experience as little residue as possible, so that may mean the use of row cleaners and duals on the combine and grain buggy to leave the stalks standing. The result would be more uniform planting depth, better emergence, less slug damage, and hopefully, better yields.”
SeCan’s Harry says growers should also look at how they buy seed. “If you buy in volume, buy corn as well and buy earlier; soybean seed will be cheaper with whatever company you go with,” he notes.
Working with a system will maximize return on soybean seed cost, but do not expect seed prices to stay level. “The advancements in genetics, traits and technologies come at a cost,” Alderman says. “Everything related to advancements in yield-driven technologies is in or on the seed. In order to improve on this front, companies need to invest in seed research, and growers need to invest in certified seed to have access to these technologies. It’s a two-way street, and at the end of the day, it’s about increasing yield.”