The Agriculture Department predicted U.S. growers would harvest 2.9 billion bushels of soybeans this year… down 8 percent from 2007. Nationally, the average yield is pegged at 39.3 bushels per acre… down 5 percent from last year.
But a yield of less than 40 bushels per acre is laughable to one producer is Missouri, who virtually QUADRUPLED that figure last year. Planting a variety of seed produced by Pioneer Hi-Bred, a national underwriter of Market to Market, Kip Cullers has become the nation's "soybean guru."
This year though, cool weather and torrential Midwestern rains threatened to curtail his record-shattering soybean yields. Market to Market caught up with Cullers as he harvested this year's crop and found that while his yields were reduced, they're still amazing.
Kip Cullers may not look like royalty but the Missouri farmer does have a regal reputation as "The Soybean King." In 2006, Cullers crushed the previous soybean yield record of 118 bushels per acre, with a 139 bushels per acre harvest.
Kip Cullers, Purdy Missouri: "The reason we planted soybeans out there was for our 2007 corn yield contest. Our actual intention was plowing them down as a green manure crop. But, Scott Dickey, one of my Pioneer Agronomists was down and he was asking about soybeans. "So, what did the soybeans look like?" I said, "Oh they look ok." "So, let's go look at them." So, I went and looked at them and went, "holy cow you better start taking care of these." That's how it actually all come about. It really was by accident."
If 2006 was an accident, 2007 was a catastrophe. One year after setting a new soybean record of 139 bushels an acre, Cullers shattered that record with a 154 bushel per acre yield.
Kip Cullers, Purdy, Missouri: "The 139, I mean, we really didn't have any idea we knew they was going to be way over a hundred. We didn't know how much, I mean, everybody that looked at them was like holy cow I've never seen anything like it and last year when they made the 154 you know. Basically the same thing. A lot of it had to do with our average seed size on those is about 2100 seeds per pound at harvest which normal is about 3000. So you know basically a third of our yields just fell free out of the sky by having larger seed."
Cullers believes the most important thing a farmer can do to improve his yields is to plant the right genetics. While there are plenty of experts who disagree with him, he also feels that larger seed will produce a more vigorous plant with greater yields.
Kip Cullers, Purdy, Missouri: "Most people would rather plant the small seed because you're buying it by the pound versus by the K. So the smaller seed the more seeds you get in bag and it saves a little seed, but you know it's each his own.
Cullers is the first to admit he gets a lot of help in realizing his high yields. He's constantly on the phone, consulting with agronomists. And he plants a large number of contest acres, to test new ideas, technologies and genetics.
Kip Cullers, Purdy, Missouri: "What we use our contest acres for is strictly a learning tool. What can I learn there and go apply that to all the normal acres because if you could add ten bushels to every acre my gosh look at the reward is on that."
Palle Pedersen, Iowa State University: "We have done more than a 100 bushel per acre here in Iowa and our plants are tiny compared to his plants down there. So, I believe him. I have seen it."
Palle Pedersen is a soybean extension agronomist at Iowa State University and just one of the experts that Cullers turns to for advice. While Pedersen encourages farmers to employ the same farming practices that Cullers follows, he believes that the Newtonia Red soil that Cullers farms could be largely responsible for his high yields.
Kip Cullers, Purdy, Missouri: "There's only about 23 - 2400 acres of it, pretty well anywhere in the United States. If you dug down here 12 feet deep you know it'd be red from top to bottom."
The soil, a sandy silt loam that drains extremely well, allows Cullers to irrigate his crops without having to worry about damaging the roots and it allows him to grow more plants per acre than other soil types.
Palle Pedersen, Iowa State University: "He's seeding extremely high seed rate. He's able to keep all the plants. If we for example in Iowa seeding two hundred thousand seeds per acre our final stand will probably be around 135/140 thousand. So we will loose a lot of the seeds we're putting out simply from plant to plant competition. But it can be many thing on his farm is the reason why. Altitude, CO2 levels, growing degree units, many, many things that, that is the reason why he get those high yields."
According to USDA, the national average yield for soybeans in 2008 was 39.3 bushels an acre, so, a 155 bushel per acre yield gets the attention of both researchers and growers.
To help him answer all the "how'd ya do it" questions, Pioneer Seeds has given Cullers space on their electronic newsletter called "Growing Point." And, it wouldn't upset Cullers at all if someone should take that information and dethrone him as "King of the Hill" of beans.
Kip Cullers, Purdy, Missouri: "You know I don't have a clue how long that record will hold. Hopefully there's a lot of people out there trying to break it and maybe they'll break it and then I can go talk to them and learn something from them and we'll make 250 bushels.
Market to Market checked in with Cullers again in October to see if his soybean yields would give him back-to back-to back world records. But in 2008, a cool, wet spring, took its toll on his contest acres where yields averaged only 117 bushels.
Kip Cullers, Purdy, Missouri: "Our contest acres this year aren't as good as they were last year. We're off 10-20% from last year… Maybe 25 %, I don't know. We've had so much rain this year it's just been a bad deal."
While yields on his irrigated contest acres were down dramatically, Cullers saw the highest soybean yields ever on his dry land production acres.
Kip Cullers, Purdy, Missouri: "Everybody is always asking me, you know, why do we do the contests and if we make money on the contests. And I always tell everybody the same answer, "What does it matter what it costs to raise them?" They want to know what the profitability is but this is an 85 acre field and they're making a little over 100 bushels an acre and we've got 160 acres across the road that looks like they'll go over 100 bushels. So all we did on this is we just took what we learned on our contest acres and applied it to our normal acres."
Cullers' "recipe for bountiful beans" starts with planting the right genetics. He also includes several rounds of fungicide and insecticide. And, a dash of experimentation.
Kip Cullers, Purdy Missouri: ‘We used two applications of Headline Fungicide, 6 ounces each. The first one we put on at R-1 or R-2... the second one about two weeks later. Then we used three applications of Respect Insecticide on them. And we treated the seed with Optimize on the seed. And see what you can make work on your farm.
Any farmer will tell you that large yields are important to making a profit. But for Cullers, production is only part of the equation.
Kip Cullers, Purdy Missouri: "Commodity prices, even though they've dropped, are still at a pretty good price. Yeah, you can make more money marketing than farming."