Planting Soybeans….Should I Buy a Grain Drill?

John Orlowski, Bill Cox, Wayne Knoblauch, and Phil Atkins, Department of Crop & Soil Sciences, Cornell University

Soybean acreage has more than doubled in NY over the last decade. In 2000, NY growers planted about 135,000 acres of soybeans, but planted about 280,000 acres in both 2010 and 2011. More importantly, total annual value of soybeans has averaged about $145 million over the last 2 years, almost 40% of the value of all commercial vegetable crops in NY, indicating that soybeans are no longer a minor crop. Increased acreage comes from a combination of long-time growers planting more acres and new growers adding soybeans to their rotation.  Some new growers are from regions in NY where wheat is not in the rotation. Consequently, these new growers, who do not own a grain drill, are seeding soybeans with a standard row crop planter (30 inch rows).  An obvious question is should these new growers purchase a grain drill or continue to seed soybeans with a corn planter in 30-inch rows?

We conducted field scale studies in 2010 and 2011 on cooperator farms in Central (Cayuga County) and Western New York (Livingston County) in order to investigate the effect of row spacing on soybean yield using actual grower management practices.  The cooperating farmers performed all field operations including tillage, planting, chemical application and harvest. We used a Weigh Wagon to record yield and also took other measurements including stand counts, weed counts, lodging, plant height, disease incidence, and moisture at harvest.  The Cayuga Co. farm was planted no-till in both years while the Livingston Co. farm was chisel plowed in both 2010 and 2011.

Economic analysis was conducted for costs associated with purchasing a grain drill appropriate for planting 300 acres (15 ft. drill-list price $20,000), 600 acres (20 ft. drill-list price $25,500) and 1200 acres (30 ft. drill-list price $46,000) of soybeans.  The results are reported in real 2012 dollars, based on the average soybean price of $11.50/ bushel and seed cost of $52/ bag (150,000 seeds) in 2010 and 2011.

Cayuga Co.
As reported in the previous article, there were no differences in yield among the three row spacing’s. Consequently the grower at this location, who practices a corn-soybean-wheat rotation, can use either a no-till grain drill or row crop planter to plant soybean into high-residue corn conditions. If the grower switches to an exclusive corn-soybean rotation, the grower can continue to use the grain drill but not purchase a new drill once it requires replacement. Instead, the grower should only maintain a row crop planter without inter-units and plant corn and soybean in 30-inch rows.

Livingston Co.
At this location we did see differences in yield.  The drilled (7.5 in) soybeans at the recommended seeding rate of 170,000 seeds/acre showed a 2.4 bushel/acre or about a 4% yield advantage compared to 30-inch rows at a seeding rate of 130,000 seeds/acre (64.1 vs. 61.7 bushels/acre).  For this farm that already owns a grain drill, the relative profit of drilling soybeans in 7.5 inch rows at the higher seeding rate compared to planting in 30 inch rows at the lower seeding rate would be a function of the market price received for the harvested soybean crop minus the seed cost associated with the higher seeding rate.  So, if the grower paid an average price of $55/bag for seed and marketed the crop at $11.50/bushel in the 2010 and 2011 growing seasons, the farmer at this site would have realized an increase in net farm profitability of about $13.30/acre by planting with a grain drill (Table 1). If seed costs increase and prices received for the crop decrease in the future, profit will shrink (Table 1).

For farms that do not own a grain drill, should they purchase one if there is a 2.4 bushel/acre yield advantage?  We considered the annual fixed costs of owning a grain drill, including depreciation, interest, shelter and insurance. Likewise, we considered the annual variable costs of ownership, including repair costs, harvest and hauling costs and the cost of the extra seed (40,000/150,000 x $52/bag =$13.87/acre) needed to drill soybeans at 170,000 seeds/acre compared with 130,000 seeds/acre when planted with a corn planter.   The breakeven point for purchasing a grain drill to seed soybeans based on prices and costs in 2010 and 2011 and a 2.4 bushel/acre yield advantage is around 300 acres.  The grower would realize an increase in net farm profitability by purchasing a grain drill if planting 600 or 1200 acres of soybeans (Table 2). As expected the more soybean acres planted, the greater the increase in net farm profitability.

Our economic analyses indicate, given 2010 and 2011 seed costs and market prices and a 2.4 bushel/acre yield advantage for drilled beans, growers who own a grain drill would have reaped a profit of about $13-14/acre if seeding soybeans with a grain drill. For growers who don’t own a grain drill, buying a grain drill would be profitable at 2010 and 2011 prices, if planting more than 300 acres of soybeans.  On farms with less soybean acreage or no yield advantage, buying a grain drill does not provide an economic advantage. The net farm profitability, however, will vary significantly when the yield advantage for drilled soybeans, the price of soybean seed, and the price received by the farmer for their crop vary.

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