In Search of the Sweet Spot

Jimmy Frederick drops soybean planting rate yet slams 138 bu. per acre dryland yield. ( Farm Journal )

Riding on the edge of doubt, Jimmy Frederick chewed his fingernails and stared down from the box. On a fine day in early May, he planted soybeans while making long three-quarters-of-a-mile passes across a Nebraska field—and slowly punched 50,000 to 60,000 seeds per acre into the soil. As the tractor eased down the rows at 2 mph, Frederick began sending smartphone pictures of the monitor numbers to his farming buddies. His phone buzzed with return texts: “Jimmy, are you sure you’re not planting corn?”
Despite initial misgivings, Frederick had just lit a slow-burning fuse on an absolute bin-buster. In October 2018, his extremely low planting rate resulted in an astonishing dryland soybean yield of 138 bu. per acre. The 138-bu. yield covered 10 acres of a 204-acre field planted between 50,000 to 80,000 seeds per acre. However, the rest of the field also came in with booming yields between 90 bu. and 110 bu. per acre, and was planted at seeding rates varying from 110,000 to 130,000: All dryland and all managed with biologicals.
With his father, James, Frederick
farms 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans across a mix of terraces, hills and bottom ground in Rulo, Neb., located in the southeast corner of the state. Typically, his soybean yields bounce between 75 bu. and 90 bu. per acre on non-irrigated ground. Prior to 2018, the flat 204-acre field had been in continuous corn for a decade, and the silty Marshall soils produced strong yields, typically above 200 bu. per acre.
“I think the corn must have really helped put a lot of carbon in the ground,” Frederick says. “After we cut corn in 2017, we did a little vertical till and that’s it. I ran my usual Roundup program the next spring and didn’t have any weed issues to speak of going into planting.”

 Frederick, 37, has used biologicals for five consecutive years, with disciplined use and a long-term target on soil improvement. No microwave yield jumps or presto ingredients. There is no “dump and boom” biological formula according to Frederick, but rather a slow brew toward building healthy soil.

Out of the gate, Frederick is obsessive in setting puzzle pieces in place: “Corn or soybeans, I focus on making sure every seed has plenty of food when it sprouts. Providing food later is too late for a malnourished plant.”

On May 11, Frederick began planting at 2 mph, and dropped seeds at a 1" depth into 30" rows. He ran fertilizer in-furrow with the planter. “I put on Biovante’s new Nutri-HQ 3-18-18, and then ran all Biovante’s biologicals in the row,” he says.

Following planting, Frederick anxiously waited to see how the seeds would respond to the various planting rates: 5 acres at 50,000 to 60,000, 5 acres at 70,000 to 80,000 and the remainder of the 204 acres went in at 110,000 to 130,000.

Chris Masters, Biovante president, coaxed Frederick toward low seeding rates. “I want to give the plant the ability to flex,” Masters explains. “Get the right variety combined with the right timing on applications, and the soybeans with low populations are able to flex and express themselves.”

Frederick had never heard of a farmer planting soybeans at 50,000 seeds per acre. His skepticism pushed him to place his trial at the back of the field, furthest from view on an adjoining highway. No matter how justified, his doubts would rapidly melt away in a matter of weeks.

“In about a month, I couldn’t see any obvious differences in the field as the rows filled in,” Frederick recalls. “I applied more biologicals and potassium and just waited.”

By pod set, the beans began talking. Pods per plant varied according to population, according to Frederick. “I knew something big and cool was coming. The pods were heavy everywhere, but I could walk into the 50s without cherry-picking and always grab a 280 or 300. I had one plant with 419,” he says.

“This is a numbers game,” Masters emphasizes. “Let’s say the average grower gets 14 to 15 nodes per plant, holding an average of two to three pods per node. Jimmy was at 24 to 27 nodes and steadily six to seven pods per node—a huge shift. He went low and made it up in pods. Lesser mouths retained more food. More energy, shorter, more pods, more nodes.”

Masters acknowledges high soybean yields with high planting populations, but says profitability is an increasingly crucial issue. “I’m excited about raising overall farm averages up 3, 7 or 10-plus bushels,” he says.

During the growing season, Mother Nature threw Frederick several curveballs. His dryland soybeans barely got a drink during a two-month stretch: ½" in June and a ¼" in July. Conversely, over four weeks in August and September, the crop was drenched with 15" of moisture. Yet, when harvest arrived at the beginning of October, he knew the plants were loaded.

“I figured this had to be a record yield, at least for me,” he says. “The beans looked crazy, but you can never be sure until you run the combine.”

“This crop was so strong,” Masters emphasizes. “The seeds were large, consistently 2,000 per pound. Probably 95% of the plants were three pods, with a fair amount of four pods and rarely a two pod.”

After some nudging from Jimmy, fellow Richardson County grower Joe Niedfeldt, 38, is cutting back on his soybean population. In 2018, he dropped 25,000 to 35,000 seeds per acre settling between 125,000 and 135,000, although he had a portion at 105,000. Typically, his dryland soybean yields range from 50 bu. to 75 bu. per acre. “We had really tough weather in June and July, with almost no rain, but across my operation I either maintained or added yield, and got rid of lodging problems from tall ragged plants.”

In addition, Niedfeldt placed 100 acres in side-by-side tests of biological products combined with low populations. “I’m starting to learn about tissue sampling soybeans, at the advice of Jimmy, and I haven’t used all the practices he does, but this takes time, and I want to go slow,” he says. “In the past, I planted, sprayed for weeds and then harvested. That’s over with. I walked my fields all summer.”

Niedfeldt’s overall soybean seed purchase dropped by 500 units. “No question,” he says. “Lower populations kept more money in my pocket. We saved on seed, increased harvestability and boosted yield. It does take time and effort to retrain yourself how you grow your soybeans, or any crop for that matter, but I want to find the sweet spot.”

When Frederick began cutting, the monitor began to sing and yield numbers danced from 90 bu. to 110 bu. per acre over the 204 acres. The area planted at 50,000 to 60,000 seeds per acre rang up a shocking 138 bu. per acre. “Those bushels just poured in and the whole deal showed me the impact of carbon after 10 years of corn. Also, I know I’ve got to focus less on phosphorus and potassium,” he adds.

Frederick planted two varieties in the field, and the top yielder was Asgrow 36X6. He also used BioCore and BioMate (sugars with biologicals), as well as BioFlex (an inoculant) and Assist (a fulvic acid) in an in-furrow package.

“There were no ungodly costs,” Masters says. “The in-furrow package is less than $12 per acre and can be applied with the planter. A product like BioCore is $3.78 per acre and our number over yield is 3 bu. to 13 bu.”

The long-term approach to biologicals is paying out on Frederick’s land, Masters says: “The transition takes three or four years to really take hold, but it leads to better emergence, a better stand and a reduction in synthetic fertilizers because the soil retains what is needed.”

“This year, Jimmy’s dryland yields highlighted the importance of seed spacing, population, the right products to promote growth outward instead of up, application timing, quality of products and variety selection,” Masters continues.

What about Frederick’s plans for 2019? “I’m definitely going to continue lowering planting populations. I’m going to move more acres to 70,000 to 80,000 and take more time to plant; go slow,” he says. “It saves me so much money on seed. I’m still learning, but I know what I’m seeing take place in my fields.”

No stranger to remarkable yields, Jimmy Frederick hit 163.9 bu. irrigated soybeans in 2017. Learn more at