Seeking 2020 Vision

By Jason Jenkins, Mill Creek Communications

Robert Alpers harvested his share of soybean acres this fall, but no field garnered more interest on his Cooper County farm than the one he had planted to conventional soybeans.

Robert Alpers on his Prairie Home farm during harvest.

It was the first time in nearly two decades that the producer from Prairie Home had planted a variety that wasn’t tolerant to herbicide, and after watching the crop throughout the growing season, it was finally time to gauge the result of his experiment. As the combine rolled across the field and the grain tank began to fill, he watched the yield monitor closely. He didn’t have to watch for long.

“They did just fine,” says Alpers, who currently serves as chairman of the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council.

“As far as yield, standability and cutting, they were as good as our other early-planted beans. We had better beans, but they were planted later. We planted that same conventional variety in a test plot about three weeks later, and they made 15 bushels more to the acre. They even beat some of the commercial varieties in the plot.”

Soybean harvest.

After a year when wet weather and flooding prevented thousands of acres of soybeans from even being planted, Alpers is optimistic about 2020 and the opportunities that are beginning to materialize for non-GMO soybeans. Like many others in central Missouri, he’s keeping tabs on the progress of Moberly Natural Crush, a startup company that could significantly increase the demand for conventional beans.

“It may not happen this next year, but we understand there is a possibility there to earn a premium,” he says. “If that comes to pass, it will make a big difference in the amount of acres we plant in the future.”

Brian Martin, a grower from Centralia, also produced conventional soybeans in 2019 and was satisfied with the results, even though they weren’t planted until early June.

“Those beans yielded 67 bushels per acre,” he says. “They did well for us.”

Brian Martin

By comparison, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated the statewide soybean yield at 46 bushels per acre, based on Nov. 1 conditions. While that’s up 1.5 bushels from 2018, overall production in Missouri is forecast to be down 10 percent from last year due to the reduction in planted acres.

Freedom to Operate

Whether or not a grower chooses to raise conventional or GMO soybeans in 2020, the Missouri Soybean Association (MSA) is working to ensure that all options remain on the table for the state’s soybean farmers. Casey Wasser, MSA’s director of policy, says that as an association representing such a diverse group of growers, there is a balancing act.

“We find ourselves trying to balance the need to fight herbicide-resistant weeds and the ability of our producers to have the freedom to operate,” he says. “If I want to grow conventional beans next to a farmer who’s been struggling with resistant weeds — and a new technology comes out that’s going to allow him to farm better — that’s where we have to find ways to make it work for everyone.”

Although the Missouri Department of Agriculture processed fewer complaints in 2019, issues with crop injury due to the off-target movement of dicamba still exist. The passage of House Bill 662 in 2017 gave the department additional authority to assess fines on those who misuse or don’t follow EPA application guidelines, but Wasser says the next step is more training.

“There’s an unfunded mandate coming down from EPA that requires private applicators to have a certain level of training,” he says. “What it will look like is still up in the air, but one thing we know for certain is that the current training provided for these private applicators is not sufficient in the eyes of the EPA.”

Wasser adds that the farmers who serve on the MSA board support required training for custom applicators.

“We are working with the Department of Agriculture and the University of Missouri to try to come up with a reasonable training program that doesn’t put too much burden on the farmer but does ensure that those applying pesticides and herbicides have the knowledge to do it accurately,” he says. “We’re all trying to decide how we’re going to pay for it. We’re probably going to see that training implemented by the middle to end of next year.”

Other efforts to increase training for custom applicators also are underway in the Show-Me State.

Earlier this year, MFA Incorporated announced that the cooperative had partnered with State Technical College of Missouri in Linn to offer a new Custom Applicator, General Technology program.

Currently, the MFA-sponsored program is the only one of its kind in Missouri, providing students with hands-on education, two internship experiences and the opportunity for full-time employment with the cooperative after graduation. Students selected for the two-year program receive $15,000 to use toward the cost of their education. Three students were accepted into the program in 2019.

Wasser credited agriculture companies like MFA for going beyond EPA label restrictions to ensure that herbicides were applied correctly and in a timely manner that not only helped their customers but also protected their customers’ neighbors. The EPA registrations on dicamba products for “over-the-top” use are valid until December 2020.

The SOYLEIC™ trait technology in non-GMO, or conventional, soybean varieties is part of ongoing research and development in Missouri, and is part of a larger effort to bring farmers greater choice in their soybean varieties.

Adequate training for applicators will become even more important as the non-GMO SOYLEIC™ varieties containing a high-oleic trait reach the market.

These soybeans contain oil that can be used at high temperatures without hydrogenation or the production of trans fats, which has been linked
to human health concerns. Wasser says the association will be engaging policymakers and lawmakers about SOYLEIC™, educating them about the trait’s value to soybean growers in Missouri and beyond.

“When it comes to trade, conventional soybeans are in demand in international markets where GMO varieties aren’t accepted,” he says. “The SOYLEIC™ beans give us an opportunity to increase that market share.”

Back in Cooper County, Alpers is still on the fence about how many acres of conventional soybeans he’ll plant in 2020. Weed control remains his top concern.

“If we can get our burndown on this fall with some residuals, we’ll be ready to go,” he says.

“If the weather doesn’t allow us to get that residual on, we probably won’t. You really have to make sure you get everything done in a timely manner because you’ve really only got one shot at it for every step. If we can get a premium on them, all the better.”

In Boone County, Martin says that while he also is unsure about what varieties he’ll plant on his farm, he’s sold non- GMO seed through his dealership to a few growers in neighboring Callaway County for 2020.

“As a seed dealer, I can share the lessons I’ve learned with conventional beans these last couple of years with other growers,” he says. “I’d like to think we’ll see that market grow.”

To learn more about the Custom Applicator program at State Technical College of Missouri, visit statetechmo. edu/programs/industrialtech/gnt/.