How Change in the Planting System Influenced the South
⋅ BY DANNY E. BRADSHAW ⋅
With the success across the South in growing indeterminate soybeans and the Early Soybean Production System (ESPS), many questions remain about the history of the system. Early planted, indeterminate soybeans of the appropriate maturity group (mainly IV and early V) have made significant contributions to the yield, quality, and profitability of Texas soybeans. The same is true to an increasing amount in other southern states.
After receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in agronomy from Texas Tech University in 1964, I worked for a seed company in sorghum research until 1969. From 1969-1975, I was with the Texas Department of Agriculture-Seed Division and worked with varietal seed purity and seed certification.
In 1975, my family moved to El Campo, Texas, where I worked with Henderson Farms Seed Rice in seed production and quality control. As interest in soybean production increased in the mid-1970s, they became a major supplier of soybean seed to farmers in the Texas Rice Belt.
From my observations and discussions with others while at Henderson Farms, I became aware of the erratic yields and often low profitability of the conventional May- to June-planted soybeans, especially on some of the sandier, droughty soils. The recommended production practice at that time across the southern U.S. was to plant maturity Group VI, VII, and VIII from May 15 until June 30.
Since coming up with the concept in 1976, my partners and I started doing research and small-scale testing in 1977.
The “Epiphany Moment”
In 1976, I attended the American Society of Agronomy annual meeting in Houston. At that meeting, Dr. Kenneth Boote of the University of Florida presented a paper at the Crop Ecology, Production, and Management session on his research with double cropping soybean followed by soybean in Central Florida. During that presentation, I had what can best be described as an epiphany moment.
It suddenly became clear to me that early planted Midwest soybean varieties might be the answer to many of our production problems in South Texas. If the proper variety of soybean could be planted in late March and produce a crop in Gainesville, Florida, why couldn’t a system be developed to work along the upper Gulf Coast of Texas?
This might not seem that earth shaking today, but in 1976, this concept was a dramatic departure from the recommended program of southern soybean production. From what I have been able to learn since then, it was a completely new concept with no other interest or support at the time. Everyone was stuck in the conventional paradigm of planting determinate soybeans in May and June.
After the ASA session was over, I was eager to speak with Dr. Boote. I came away enthused about the possibility of using early planted Midwest varieties in the drought-prone areas of the Texas Rice Belt. From follow-up research, it appeared Gainesville and El Campo were near the same latitude. From that, I surmised day length should be similar and the indeterminate soybeans might produce in our area.
The information Boote presented was contrary to everything we along the Texas Gulf Coast had been told about planting dates, photoperiodism, group ratings, etc. That afternoon, I saw a Texas soybean researcher from the experiment station in Beaumont. I enthusiastically shared my idea and asked if indeterminate varieties had been looked at for early planting in our area. He stated maturity Group III and IV Corn Belt varieties would not set pods in our area due to photo period incompatibility.
In the winter of 1976, I did an extensive literature review on photoperiodism and dark period resting respiration in soybeans. I bought every book I could find on soybeans and soybean physiology. From this, I confirmed the latitude of Gainesville and El Campo were very close to the same.
Information on photo period/dark period resting response caused me to conclude that soybean maturity groups adapted to Midwest conditions might be manipulated by variety selection and planting date to produce an early crop in Wharton County, Texas, as Boote was able to do in Florida. The difference was Boote had been trying to produce two crops per year under irrigated conditions.
My goal was to produce an early, non-irrigated main crop that could take advantage of spring rains. This would give Texas soybean farmers along the Gulf Coast the potential to harvest a crop of acceptable yield and quality in July or August, which would be an added benefit as harvest would be before hurricane season and before November when the fall/winter rains started.
Investigating the Concept
The idea kept growing in my mind. I talked to many scientists and Extension experts and had nothing but feedback as to why it would not work.
The annual Texas Soybean Association meeting was in Bay City, Texas in January of 1977. I discussed the concept at that meeting with the Texas Extension soybean specialist and other experts from across the South but was given similar reaction as from the researcher the previous fall. I decided it would be best for an unbiased party to plant and observe the development of the soybeans. David Bade, a doctoral student at Texas A&M University, was managing the Hutchins Research Farms at the Wharton County Junior College (WCJC). He agreed to do the planting on the WCJC farm with the same varieties Boote used.
Seeds of the varieties Amsoy 71, CX155, CX215, CX290, CX350, and Williams were planted the third week of March 1977. Plants grew off normally, bloomed, set pods, and matured in June. Bean quality was normal, and yield determined by pod count appeared comparable to conventional varieties. I was very excited by the results! The stand was too erratic and the plots too small to obtain accurate yield data. However, yield estimates by pod count were 30+ bushels for the better varieties. Differences were noted in height, maturity, and estimated yields between varieties and groups.
The results were encouraging and, in truth, better than I expected. The bean plants did set and fill pods! This confirmed my hypothesis. Now, there was much more work to be done.
In June of 1977, I joined Drs. L. Reed Green and Fred Miller in their crop consulting business in the Wharton and Matagorda counties area. Soybeans were an important crop of our consulting service and during the summer and fall, we discussed the potential for this new production concept.
In July 1977, radio personalities Ben Oldag and Bill Zack related their discussion with David Bade about the soils lab at the WCJC. They also mentioned the work Bade did with early planted soybeans on their early morning and noon farm radio show on the 50,000-Watt AM radio station KTRH in Houston. They identified it as being a new soybean production development for the Texas Rice Belt. The word was out! Farmers started talking and asking questions.
Field Testing the Concept
Farmers who heard of the efforts on the radio and by word of mouth started asking questions and discussing the concept. The early planting system was of interest to them for several reasons: a desire for higher yields; more stable, dependable production due to early planted soybeans being able to take advantage of more favorable rainfall patterns; spreading their workload; and the potential for earlier harvest before fall rains.
The 1977 soybean production year followed the historical pattern of a drought period several weeks long in July, August, and September. Dismal production results on sandy soils in 1978 reinforced that we needed to try something different to take advantage of the spring rains.
During the winter of 1977-1978, my partners and I arranged for small, field scale variety trials with three of our farmer clients. Until that time, weigh wagons were almost unheard of and not available in this area to collect yield data. We decided to purchase one, which was no small thing for three independent crop consultants.
Seed of the same varieties were obtained with help from Bonus Crop Fertilizer in Bay City. In late March 1978, strip plot tests were planted on the farms of Kenny Morton, Lavaca County; Carl Reynolds, Wharton County; and David Gilbert, Wharton County. All locations were on sandier soils with a history of poor soybean production with conventional varieties and 20 acres to 30 acres in size to obtain reliable combine harvest data.
In late May, the Texas Extension soybean specialist conducted his annual soybean production meeting for farmers in Wharton. At that meeting, he stressed the proper procedure for planting was to plant conventional, determinate varieties of Group VI, VII, and VIII. He said he was getting questions from farmers about earlier planting. He spent most of his time explaining why that would not work. He said because of day length, the plants would not bloom and set pods. After his presentation, I invited him to look at some fields.
In mid-June, he accompanied me to the Morton plots at Speaks. At that time, we observed seed set and fill, plant development, and varietal differences. I then again explained the concept and procedure. In 1976, it was only a concept. In 1978, it was a proven fact with beans to harvest in July.
The plots were harvested the first week of July; I recall the field averaged 25 bushels per acre with some varieties yielding over 30 bushels per acre. Williams was the highest yielding in the plot. It was also the latest maturing and tallest in stature.
Problems and Successes
In 1979, I again worked with Morton and drill planted a small field with Williams, the best variety in previous years, and a new variety. Dr. Green and I met a young seed salesman, Gary Gray, and he offered us some seed of Ring Around RA 452 and said it should get taller than Williams. Drill planting was used in an attempt to increase plant and pod height as well as yield. The field yielded in the mid-to-upper 30 bushels range. Ring Around RA 452 became the top bean for the next 15-20 years.
Reynolds, one of our test location clients, continued to raise Group IV soybeans whenever he could obtain the seed. Dr. Crenshaw, a medical doctor who owned a farm in Port Lavaca, began planting early soybeans. He relayed his interest to research agronomist Mr. Lucas Reyes. Reyes discussed with Dr. Lanny Ashlock, a young agronomist at the Corpus Christi station, who then began testing indeterminate soybean varieties.
Dr. Crenshaw, by incorporating some of the resulting variety information with his own farming knowledge, developed a core soybean production area in the Texas Coastal Bend by the mid-1980s.
Due to production problems and a generally depressed agricultural economy in the early ‘80s, conventional soybean production declined significantly in the upper Texas Gulf Coast. In the mid ‘80s, there was a Southern Soybean Production Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. There was no interest in early soybeans, and everything was about the May- to June-planted, determinate approach.
But back home, early planted soybean acres continued to increase and by the mid ‘80s, grain dryers and facilities started accepting soybeans in July and August in Wharton and Matagorda counties. By about 1990, acreage of early planted Group IV soybeans had surpassed conventional varieties in the Wharton, Jackson, and Matagorda counties area.
Research at the Beaumont station on indeterminate soybean varieties started in the late ‘80s. By the early ‘90s, Extension was reporting variety recommendations that included Ring Around RA 452 as the standard to beat.
To my knowledge, this system was conceived, and initial development done, by the private sector — independent crop consultants, farmers, and seed companies. This is not to take away from the many contributions of researchers and Extension since the mid-‘80s conducting variety trials and collecting yield information.
It required independent thought and research with self-education and a burning desire to find answers to important questions. It was going to take a new way of thinking and people who would not take no for an answer. Now we take it for granted, but by the late ‘80s, early planting of Group IV and early V was well established in Texas.
Through the research and promotion efforts of Drs. Larry Heatherly and Lanny Ashlock, the Early Soybean Production System (ESPS) emerged and was named. It has been accepted and proved profitable by thousands of farmers in the South.
Heatherly, after questioning, researching, and finally overcoming the conventional soybean production way of thinking, started working with Dr. Glenn Bowers in soybean research in the mid-to-late ‘80s. Bowers was the soybean breeder at the Beaumont experiment station. Lanny Ashlock did the early soybean variety testing in Texas in 1978-1981 while he was Extension agronomist at the Corpus Christi experiment station.
In 1998, Drs. Heatherly and Bowers, as coeditors, wrote the Early Soybean Production System Handbook, which was published by the United Soybean Board. It was a major step in the introduction to farmers of the ESPS concept. We are now approaching the 50-year anniversary of this innovation.
As it has developed and evolved, this “radical” concept — now generally referred to as the Early Soybean Production System (ESPS) — has made a major contribution to the current success of soybean farmers in Texas and other southern states.
The system has become the standard production method not only in Texas but across the South. Yields of over 100 bushels have been produced by some farmers in Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee. In addition, it has reduced the insect problems in soybean production. Diseases are not as much a problem, and the unfavorable weather from tropical storms is less likely to be a problem.
ESPS has also opened a whole new range of cropping systems and options. Just recently, Alex Harrell, a young farmer in Georgia set a new yield record of 206.7997 bushels. This was done with a group IV bean planted April 5, 2023. Harrell used the optimum management practices. In 1976, I never would have dreamed such a yield was possible.
If anyone knows of early work of which I am not aware, please let me know. I feel it is my ethical duty to investigate, document, and give credit to others for their involvement.