By Brian Hefty

When soybeans were over $10 per bushel, I literally had farmers walk into my office and say, “What else can I spend money on in my soybeans?”  Recently, I’ve talked to farmers who have said, “Soybeans aren’t worth anything now, so I’m not going to spend any money on them.”

I have been a full-time agronomist for more than 25 years now, and this type of overreaction to commodity prices is one of the most frustrating things I deal with on an almost daily basis.  Here’s what I mean.  Just because commodity prices are high, that doesn’t mean everything you can spray on the crop will pay.  Even when commodity prices are low, there are still many things that can be done to the crop that make money.

There are always 3 things I’m looking for, as an agronomist, before I advise a farmer to make a particular application.

  1. There should be a good chance this treatment will increase yield
  2. There needs to be a high probability the application will provide a positive return on investment
  3. Whatever the treatment is, it should be good for the land (soil, water, etc.)

Using those 3 criteria, as I always do, here’s how I look at some of the late season treatments you may be considering right now in soybeans.

INSECTICIDE.  Since insecticide prices are at an all-time low (less than $2/acre for many outstanding products), it’s tempting to throw in insecticide every pass over the field.  It’s hard to argue with that logic, but I’d still rather have you scout, spraying only when there are harmful insects present.  By treating a field with no bad bugs, you will lower beneficial insect numbers in the short term, which could mean a repeat insecticide treatment will be necessary.  If you are considering skipping the insecticide to “save money”, even when harmful insects are present, I would remind you that insecticides are now dirt cheap.  Economic thresholds for all insects are very low now because the cost of treatment is almost nothing.

FUNGICIDE.  Like insecticide prices, fungicide prices are at an all-time low and still falling.  Next year, I expect fungicide prices to be down significantly once again.  This doesn’t mean that fungicide will always pay.  It is more likely to pay off when you have wet weather, a history of disease, disease present this year in your area, and when you SPRAY BEFORE YOU SEE THE DISEASE.  You were probably nodding your head when I made my first 3 points in that last sentence.  Once I got to the “spray before you see the disease” part, I probably lost you.  Think about it this way.  As a human being, the first few hours you get sick, you just feel off, but you probably look okay to the outside world, right?  By the time people say, “Wow!  You look terrible!”  Your illness has really taken its toll.  It’s not much different in plants.  You don’t want to look at your crop and say, “Wow.  My crop has a lot of disease showing!”  By that time, you’ve already lost a bunch of yield AND your chance for a great ROI with a fungicide.  Spraying a fungicide is always a gamble, which is why you either need to keep your cost down, spray when the conditions heavily favor disease onset, or save your money.  For the soybeans on our farm, we typically run with a half rate at R2, and in some cases we follow with a full rate at R4 or R5 if the crop looks good and the likelihood of disease is high.  Even in 2012 (our driest year since 1937), a low rate of soybean fungicide paid, so I will at least do one shot.

FOLIAR FERTILIZER.  I wish I could tell you this paid consistently, but I can’t.  I don’t have all the answers when it comes to foliar fertilizer.  Yes, we are using AC-97 on our farm once or twice each season now in soybeans, and yes, we’ve used some Ferti-Rain and a couple other products successfully, but I strongly encourage you to soil test and pull plant tissue samples to fine-tune your program.  I would also suggest experimenting with foliar feeding before jumping in and treating your whole farm.

BIOLOGICALS and/or PLANT GROWTH HORMONES.  It seems like there are a million different products out there today in this general category.  Again, do some experimentation yourself to see if you can find something that works for you.  We apply MegaGro every time we spray Roundup, and MegaGro is a component of the foliar fertilizer AC-97, but other than that I can’t tell you we’ve had great success with a lot of different products.

For any soybean farmer I talk to, I will almost always recommend foliar fungicide.  I recommend an insecticide only if there are some (doesn’t have to be lots) harmful bugs present.  I encourage you to experiment with foliar fertilizer, biologicals, and plant growth hormones, and try to find something that works for you.  Good luck!