5 Ways to Apply Precision Agriculture Technology to Your Soybeans

by Brynna Sentel
6 minutes read
A white drone flying above a field of soybeans.

“We’ve talked a lot about precision agriculture technology on the corn side, but people forget about it on the soybean side,” says Jason Webster, lead commercial agronomist, Precision Planting. “Growers come to me, and they’re stuck at a yield with their soybeans and can’t get more.” It all starts with measurement and data, he says, sharing his thoughts on the five ways he recommends implementing precision technology on soybeans to increase crop yields.

1. Downforce & Depth

Begin by measuring and collecting data – starting with precision placement of seed, the right downforce and the right depth. “What we’ve found at the PTI Farm [Precision Planting’s research farm] is that downforce depth and seed-to-soil contact to get that perfect foundation for planting is critical,” says Webster.

The PTI Farm has found that when downforce matches field conditions, the depth of planting is consistent and correct. If the row unit downforce is not enough, planting depth may be too shallow, potentially placing seed in dry soil and in turn creating poorly rooted plants that struggle for water and nutrients. In contrast, too much downforce can lead to compacted furrow sidewalls, which limits plants’ access to nutrients and water.

We hear a lot about prepping the perfect seedbed, but if we aren’t fully utilizing it, that’s time and technology wasted. Measuring downforce, for example, doesn’t have to start with the most complex or even advanced technology. “We’ve got load pins we can put on the planter to measure downforce,” Webster says as an example. Easy to install and easier to read, they’re a quick, economical way to get data flowing. After all, he emphasizes, you can’t make an informed decision unless you have data.

Table 1 page 178

A graph showing the results of a multi-year DownForce study
In a three-year study, too light downforce (175# lift, 100# down) realized yield losses of -2.13 Bu/A., with corresponding net economic losses of -$23.42/A. Heavy downforce (550# down, 100# up) caused yield losses of -1.43 Bu/A., with economic losses of -$16.05/A. (Proper downforce was Automated Custom 90#.)

2. Fertilizer Reallocation

Here’s a strategy that can make an immediate impact on crop yields, Webster says, but again, one that requires data to make an informed decision. Do some soil testing, assess your yields, take a look at your planting and harvest data to determine how much to apply. If you don’t have the data, now is the time to get your planter set up to monitor and accumulate the data you need to decide.

While most growers still apply the majority of their fertilizer in the fall, the PTI Farm has reallocated. “You back off the application in the fall to account for what you put on in the spring,” Webster explains. “You’re reallocating those dollars. We reduce the fertilizer we put on by as much as $30 an acre. With the price of fertilizer right now due to inflation, that’s a significant difference.”

3. Banding of Fertilizer

Banding of fertilizer is one thing Webster says they’re taking a hard look at on the PTI Farm. “With the price of fertilizer today, we just can’t continue broadcasting,” he says. “We’re looking at high-concentration bands.”

On the PTI Farm, they accomplish fertilizer banding with strip-till. By their estimates, you can reduce costs by as much as 50 percent and a minimum of 25 percent with banding. “Anymore, you’re not getting the bang for the buck by broadcast spreading,” he says.

Table 2 page 44

A graph showing farm multi-year banding advantage.
Banding dry fertilizer resulted in average yield gains of +9.9 Bu/A. with a return on investment of +$32.77/A in a three-year study at the PTI Farm.

4. Singulating Soybeans

In corn, we call it a picket fence stand – the holy grail of production. Those same results are just as important in soybeans. As Webster says, “There’s no reason in the world we can’t singulate soybeans and get them properly spaced.”

Know your seeding rates – there’s that data again. Farmers have been used to what Webster terms a “controlled spill” when planting soybeans, but he maintains there’s no reason to accept that. “Our three-year data would say it’s a $10 per acre return when you singulate soybeans,” he says. “Putting the right crop kit on the row unit is also critical. Sometimes it’s an easy upgrade with a 50-cell disc.”

5. Closing Systems

Because many soybeans are produced with reduced tillage, closing systems can make a huge difference, since one of the biggest challenges is closing that trough. If you don’t get it closed well, then you end up with tougher sidewalls for plants to get through.

“There’s easily a $20 to $25 spread in the closing systems we test,” Webster says, “and that can change going through the field as conditions change. You can be more aggressive with closing systems like FurrowForce and see a bigger difference. Measuring, having a planter monitor in the cab, seeing those values, understanding what’s happening, is vital.”

Webster says starting with the right mindset is also critical when tapping into precision agriculture technology, and that means not making the right choice for the wrong reason. “I’m a farmer too. Too many times we’re trying to buy the cheapest thing possible, but I have had to realize that’s not going to make me money,” he explains. “Mentally, we need to be thinking in terms of what’s going to make us money, what’s going to give us ROI. This investment has got to pay for itself.”

It starts with challenging the status quo on your soybean farm, and that starts with good information, Webster insists. “Let that data stream into the cab, then use it.”

Leave a Comment