Along with phenomenal prices being posted for next year's soybean production have come stories about seed quality problems and shortages. This is all very disconcerting for growers who are planning a big move to soybean in 2008 as a way of avoiding the high cost of nitrogen that is required for corn. This situation is a lot like the story of the Grinch who stole Christmas, because it is getting in the way of something that has been so very dependable for so very long.
For those of us who can recall the time when most soybean seed were grown in the Mid-South, this is a familiar condition. In those days, the problem of seed quality was a reality in almost every year, and it was very difficult to obtain locally grown seed of a Group 4 variety. It was probably the production of these early-maturing lines that moved a lot of the soybean seed production into northern areas like Missouri and Illinois. These days, most of our soybean seed are produced near that latitude because of the dependability of seed quality from those areas. This year has apparently been an exception since most of the major seed companies are being very slow to confirm seed supplies, and with some of them stating that some varieties may not be available, or in very short supply as a result of quality problems.
In those earlier times, during the 1970's and 80's, I can recall several years when at least some varieties of soybean were sold as "substandard" seed, usually labeled as 70% germination. Along with this came the recommendation from people like Dr. Charles Baskin, former Extension Agronomist with responsibility for seed technology issues, that soybean seed be treated with a fungicide before testing and use as planting seed. Today, seed treatment has become standard as researchers and farmers have confirmed the benefits of the practice. We are also treating soybean seed with systemic insecticides, a practice formerly used only in cotton.
Another big shift in the production of soybeans has been the use of herbicide resistant varieties which allow the use of broadcast applications of glyphosate to control a wide spectrum of weed species. Some fields are grown in a RR-only program, while others combine the advantages of residual herbicides and glyphosate to give what is almost certainly the best levels of weed control we have ever had. These days it is easy to ride for miles without seeing a weed in fields of cotton, corn, and soybeans.
Unfortunately, a few species of weeds have adapted to RR technology by being selected for plants that are tolerant to glyphosate, and other plants that have seldom been considered as competitive weeds have moved into production fields to cause problems. Weed scientists have countered with combinations of glyphosate and other herbicides, some of which have been around since former soybean boom periods 30 to 40 years ago. Other herbicides have been developed as well, and we now have a tremendous arsenal of herbicides to manage weeds. This is especially true of soybean.
In the quest to secure good planting seed, most producers are limiting their consideration to RR varieties, and they probably need to since most of their neighbors will be utilizing glyphosate as a primary tool, and drift will be a big issue in major farming areas like the Delta. However, the use of RR varieties may not be an absolute necessity for growers who farm in more remote areas where glyphosate will not necessarily be used in close proximity. Some of these growers may need to consider planting a conventional variety of soybean since the demand for these seed may not be as great as for the RR varieties, at least not yet.
Several conventional Group 4 and 5 soybean varieties were included in the MAFES trials in 2007, posting yields similar to their more common RR competitors. There are quite a number of both public and private conventional soybean varieties that have been evaluated in other trials and in neighboring states.
We can still grow conventional soybeans successfully, and this option may actually be the best choice in areas where glyphosate resistance has become a big issue. I just thought this might be something that had not been considered, and it may be an option that fits some very well.
- Ernie Flint is a Mississippi State University Extension area agronomist.