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Surprising soybeans

First-of-its-kind study complete; three-year project yields surprises

Delta soybean farmer Bill Ryan Tabb repeatedly uses two words to describe his feelings going into the 2011 planting season — “optimistic” and “scared.” And, he is not alone.

Funded jointly by the Mississippi Soybean Promotion Board and Mississippi State University, the soybean seed treatment study took three years to complete at a cost of approximately $250,000.

Funded jointly by the Mississippi Soybean Promotion Board and Mississippi State University, the soybean seed treatment study took three years to complete at a cost of approximately $250,000.

So, the recent release of the findings of an exhaustive, multi-year, first-of-its-kind study of insecticide-treated soybean seeds is more than welcome by Tabb and his peers.

“It’s a heck of a arrow to have in your quiver,” Tabb said.

Funded jointly by the Mississippi Soybean Promotion Board and Mississippi State University, the soybean seed treatment study took three years to complete at a cost of approximately $250,000. Dr. Normie Buehring, Mississippi State researcher who led the study, said to his knowledge no soybean treatment study had been as comprehensive as this one.

“The research looked at the complete package from location and varieties to maturity groups and planting dates,” Buehring said.

The study’s mission was to answer a basic question — do soybean farmers see a return on their investment if they use Cruiser insecticide-treated soybean seeds no matter where or when the beans are planted or what variety of plant is chosen?

Buehring’s research evaluated selected varieties’ responses to a fungicide, ApronMaxx RTA, and to an insecticide-fungicide seed treatment, ApronMaxx RTA plus Cruiser 5SF. The selected varieties were from maturity groups III, IV and V and planted in April, May and June at three Mississippi locations in Verona, Starkville and Stoneville.

“The three-year average yields across locations ranged from 27 to 63 bushels per acre,” said Buehring. “The differing environmental conditions allowed us to evaluate whether the insecticide seed treatment was economical at low and higher yields.”

When using ApronMaxx RTA and Cruiser, Buehring said his team found soybean farmers can expect a yield bump of at least 2.0 bushels per acre over using ApronMaxx alone. The yield advantage for the study averaged 2.7 bushels per acre across all locations, varieties and planting dates.

The results proved surprising to many. Insect infestation is higher the earlier crops are planted. So, conventional thought held that soybean farmers saw diminishing returns for insecticide-treated seed the later they planted.

Tabb said he had held to that theory when he first started farming near Rosedale approximately 15 years ago. However, with escalating seed costs, he started using treated seeds no matter when he planted. He was obviously thrilled that the study’s findings proved that a wise decision.

Even if soybeans drop below $7 per bushel, farmers might want to still use treated seeds because of one benefit the study found that has researchers somewhat baffled.

During the course of the research, scientists noticed that the Cruiser-treated seeds produced greener, more robust plants than those without the treatment. Researchers cannot explain this.

Jimmy Sneed, chairman of the Mississippi Soybean Promotion Board and longtime soybean farmer in DeSoto County, referred to this simply as a “synergy,” but added that he was aware of another seed treatment study that had discovered the same unexplained benefit.

“This illustrates something I’ve found over the years. The more you know, the more you realize what all you don’t know,” Sneed said.

Keith Morton, a soybean farmer in Falkner, said he was thrilled with the study’s positive findings, but would have been just as happy if the findings had been negative.

“That’s the whole point,” Morton said. “If they had found that using treated seed was costing money and not offering a benefit, that would have been just as helpful.”

This new tool comes at a beneficial time for soybean growers. This year is full of uncertainties. As example, when asked if they thought soybean acreage would be up over last year’s approximately 1.95 million acres, Buehring predicted it would be up, Morton predicted it would hold steady and Tabb saw a drop.

“If anyone had tried to tell me years ago that I would be headed into a season with prices this good and still been this scared, I would have told them they were crazy,” Tabb said. “I am probably more scared about this year than any other I can remember.”

One concern is spiraling input costs. Feed prices are up, but the real cost concern is fuel. Throw in global uncertainties, such as the earthquake/tsunami in Japan, and growers’ optimism diminishes.

Another factor in soybean acreage is the reemergence of cotton. With solid prices, many of those growers who can are planting more cotton, potentially cutting into soybean acreage. Morton said he plans on planting 800 acres of soybeans, which is at the upper end of his yearly average, but he also plans on putting in 200 acres of cotton after growing none in 2008 and 2009.

Morton said he is already entering contracts for his 2011 soybean crop, which is not unusual. He said, however, that locking in market prices is relatively simple. The challenge is how to forecast and lock in input costs.

“We have to know input costs,” Morton said. “I don’t know if we need put options or something else, but we have to learn how to lock in these costs.”

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