Managing for Corn and Soybean Profit

Experiment with in-season input additions to loosen the squeeze on corn and soybean profits.

By Kurt Lawton

Illustration: Robert Brinkerhoff

It’s no secret that American grain growers’ bin-busting success over the past decade has led to dramatically different financial results. The high margins earned from 2009 to 2012 have dipped to disappointing lows over the past several years.

Such a cyclical swing has created a number of challenges, among the most pressing of which is the squeeze on profits. Yet, solutions exist, and one means of finding a route to greater efficiency that fits your operation is to look at the success of peers.

When analyzing six years of Illinois farmer management data—during both high-return (2010–2012) and low-return (2014–2016) years—agricultural economists at the University of Illinois learned that there’s a significant gap in returns earned by different farms over time, and the differences are persistent. Farms with persistently higher returns achieved higher revenue while cutting costs, with better control across all the main direct-cost categories of seed, pesticides and fertilizer. High-return farms also were slightly larger in size and had more soybean acres than lower-revenue farms in the study.

This 2017 Habits of Financially Resilient Farms study by Gary Schnitkey, Nick Paulson and Dale Lattz noted other consistent factors among the corn and soybean farmers with higher returns:

  • To increase profits, they devoted more time to seed and chemical input decisions, grid soil sampling and variable-rate prescriptions.
  • They strive for most-profitable yield levels, not highest yield level.
  • They have an appropriately sized and well-maintained machinery complement.

Along with the multi-year data analysis, the researchers also specifically surveyed top soybean growers about their production and management practices related to the 2016 season. These drivers to greater profit rose to the top:

  • Use narrower rows (15- to 18-inch spacing) for soybeans, compared to corn, for higher yields.
  • Plant soybeans earlier (often before corn is completed), use seed treatments and reduce seeding rates to 130,000-140,000 seeds per acre.
  • Select seed based on best traits for yield potential, herbicide resistance and disease resistance by field, not just by seed cost.
  • Grow seed beans or non-GMO beans to obtain market premiums.
  • Implement newer technology that drives return on investment.
  • Pay close attention to all details and cost control.

Learn More: See a recorded presentation of the “Habits of Financially Resilient Farms” study.

As you head into summer with greater knowledge of your crop, local conditions and market news, there are several input decisions coming that can make or break a corn or soybean crop.

1. Foliar Fungicide

Under the right conditions, applying foliar fungicide to corn at the right stage can add return on investment. The key is scouting one to two weeks before tassel to determine plant health levels. Penn State agronomist Delbert Voight Jr. recommends growers consider the following criteria for where corn is more likely to respond positively to fungicide: low-lying fields with disease history; high-yield fields; hybrids with lower genetic resistance to gray leafspot, northern corn leaf blight and anthracnose; corn following corn; fields showing 5 to 10% visible disease, especially in no-till; fields showing poor fertility or compacted soils.

2. In-Season Nitrogen

In-season use of nitrogen (N) on corn—feeding the crop beyond early sidedress when needs can occur—is a growing trend as researchers and farmers seek greater efficiency and ROI. It also helps growers comply with nutrient management regulations increasing in some states.

If you haven’t applied 100% of your N budget preseason, university research shows value in using sensor data to zero in on application timing and amounts—especially if you can experiment with variable-rate prescriptions by management zones.

Laura Thompson, University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) Extension educator and On-Farm Research Network coordinator, has seen in-season, split-applied N use efficiency surpass that of traditional 100% preseason N application during two years of on-farm, drone-based sensor work. And her colleagues at UNL have seen similar success in three years of research using crop-canopy sensors on ground rigs to direct variable-rate, in-season N application in corn.

Thompson used weekly drone flight sensor data in June to properly time the right amount of N by management zone and recorded results over two years of trials on two farms. She achieved an N use efficiency of 0.62 to 0.84 pounds N per bushel harvested—a significant improvement over the old corn standard of 1.1 to 1.2 pounds N per bushel, while applying less N overall. Her research colleagues, using active crop-canopy sensors on high-clearance sprayers, achieved a positive economic benefit of $7 to $13 per acre over three years of ground trials, depending on corn and N prices.

DOWNLOAD: Flight sensor study by Laura Thompson and her colleagues at Project Sense. (1MB PDF)

3. Cover-Crop Values

It’s difficult to talk soil/plant nutrient availability without the consideration of summer/fall seeding of cover crops, which provide benefits beyond nutrient capture. Innovative farmers are adding value with specific cover crop mixtures to achieve nutrient efficiency, weed control, water infiltration, increased organic matter, grazing profitability and more—but not all at once. This valuable soil cover must be managed as strictly as a cash crop, with great patience over several years, before some benefits begin to occur.

4. Soybean Scouting

Crop scouting, another habit of farmers in the higher return group, expands beyond corn fungicides and nitrogen. Soybean growers need to detect insect pests and foliar diseases before they steal valuable yield.

Weed scouting is critical to match the right weed spectrum and size with the right post-emergent product combination that will control all weeds present, while providing soil residual activity to hold them at bay until canopy closure. Late weeds that go to seed only add to the weed seed soil bank, requiring higher herbicide costs in future years.

As soybean maturity goes into the flowering stage, university agronomists recommend watching for aphids and applying a foliar insecticide when you hit the threshold of 250 aphids per plant in the R1–R5 growth stage range. And don’t forget spider mites, Japanese beetles, bean leaf beetles, along with diseases like frogeye leafspot, Septoria brown spot, white mold and more—all capable of cutting yield potential and profits.

For growers looking to seriously manage soybeans for higher yields in 2020 and beyond, check out the five years of research that led University of Illinois crop physiologist Fred Below to develop his Six Secrets of Soybean Success: What Five Years of Research Has Taught Us. His intensive-management research produced nearly a 15-bushel-per-acre yield gain by paying detailed attention to plant nutrition, protecting foliage and plant health, and spacing plants correctly.

DOWNLOAD: “Six Secrets of Soybean Success” (1MB PDF)

Yes, midseason input investment can be critical to year-end revenues. That’s why many ag economists and agronomists often caution about the need for prudence and making final decisions based on current yield, price and trade trends.