Lottsburg, Va., growers Michael and Mark Downing grow soybeans  a little different, but they grow them really well — setting a state record with 93.3 bushels per acre in 2009.
This year the goal is 100 bushels per acre. And, with a little luck from Mother Nature, they think the odds are in their favor.
“We feel like we had a 100 bushel per acre crop last year, but our combine just couldn’t handle that many beans — that’s a big reason why we bought a bigger combine,” Michael Downing says.
“Our county Extension agent came out to check our competition field, when I was cutting those beans. He kept telling me to slow the combine down — I couldn’t go more than 1 or 2 miles per hour and we were still losing beans — probably 10 percent — out the back of the combine,” Michael recalls.
“We were shooting for a hundred bushels per acre, and I think we had it, we just couldn’t harvest it. We got a lot of help from Pioneer and the crop production people once they saw how many beans we had in that particular field,” Mark Downing points out.
The Downing brothers own and operate Bleak House Farms on Virginia’s northern neck. The house for which the farm is named sits on the banks of the Potomac River a scant seven miles from Maryland.
Michael and Mark grew up on the Virginia grain farm, working with their father. Their mentor died too early, leaving the brothers to operate the farm. Hard lessons they say help them make hard decisions when it comes to growing grain crops.
When they started tinkering around with planting Maturity Group IV beans in April and planting behind soybeans, virtually everyone told them they were flirting with disaster. When they planted soybeans at 120,000-130,000 seed per acre, most of the experts said it couldn’t be done.
After their record crop last year some of those same folks are taking a closer look, especially at the early April planting date. A few neighboring farmers put beans in early, but the seeding rate and following beans behind beans may take another record crop for convincing many growers to dramatically alter more conventional soybean planting strategy.
Michael Downing says there was not a magic bullet they used to push soybeans near the century mark in yield. They don’t have irrigation on their farm and they didn’t use an unusual fertilizer schedule, and they used an older variety (Pioneer 94B73).
The Downing brothers farm more than 2,500 acres of grain crops in a 10-12 mile radius of the Bleak House. Their other crops produced good yields, but not near the record yield of their soybean crop last year.
“We are fortunate to have good land and to get good yields on all our crops, but our corn and wheat aren’t among the top yields in the state. Soybeans is our primary crop and we spend a lot of time thinking about better ways to grow the crop,” Mark Downing says.
Though they are justifiably proud of their record soybean yield and the first place award it brought to their farm, that’s not the biggest reason to be pleased with last year’s soybean crop. While the 93.3 bushels per acre brought some well-deserved recognition, averaging nearly 75 bushels per acre on more than 1,000 acres of soybeans was much more important to their bottom line.
As to their sometimes maverick ways of growing soybeans, mostly that comes from necessity, because of land type, crop rotation and timing of planting and harvesting so many acres of grain crops in such a short time frame.
Growing soybeans behind soybeans is not something the Downing brothers like to do, but a number of factors forced them to plant some of their 2009 crop behind beans. Included in those bean-following-bean acres was the competition field that produced 93.3 bushels per acre.
“We planted those beans in 30-inch rows in late April, like most people in this area plant corn. From the day those beans came out of the ground, they looked phenomenal. We stayed on top of the crop — like we try to do with all our crops — and other than applying two foliar feeds and two fungicide applications, we didn’t do anything special to beans that made 93.3 bushels per acre,” Michael Downing says.
They used a standard 15-15-0 starter fertilizer and the two foliar feeds were Task Force treatments that came from the crop production facility they use.
The fungicide applications were Headline at label rates, applied in July and Quilt at label rates applied in late August.
The competition field actually flooded early in the season, which slowed down the crop for a while.
Insect, disease and weed pressure were managed in the record breaking soybean crop much like other growers manage pests. The fertilizer program is likewise commonly used by growers in the northern neck of Virginia.
Planting soybeans in that area in April is unusual and planting beans behind beans, and getting high yields, is unusual. The only real difference is the timing of planting — and of course the 93.3 bushel per acre results.
“We started experimenting with early planting dates about five years ago — just an acre or two the first time. Nothing special or different about those beans, but we harvested 80 bushels per acre. So, we tried it again on more acres and have gradually gone to planting most of our beans early,” Michael says.
“The record crop, almost four acres in a 55 acre field, wasn’t on our best land, Mark says. “This year we are planting a different variety and on better land, so we are hoping to top 100 bushels per acre,” he adds.
“It’s never been done — 100 bushels of soybeans per acre — in our state. Reaching 100 bushels per acre is a goal and doing it the way we do it is a challenge, but a goal we think we can accomplish, Michael concludes.
e-mail: [email protected]