Tag Archives: Soybeans

Meet a Virginia Cooperative Extension Soybean Test Plot

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Cover photo credit-Lindy Tucker; above-Taylor Clarke

Instead of our usual narrative, this month we are sharing a video documenting our on-farm soybean test plots and explaining how we use these plots to generate decision-making tools for crop farmers in Virginia. As you will learn, developing test plots requires careful pre-planning and calculations, good management throughout the season, and special data collection at harvest time. This crop performance data becomes available to farmers each year, fueling agricultural progress and profitability. In the video, we explain the whole process from start to finish while tracking one of our plots which was planted in Southside Virginia in 2014. Click the play button to begin watching. 

Want to learn more? Read our previous story here about Extension agent Taylor Clarke and his on-farm soybean plot. 

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Photo credit (here and images below)-Lindy Tucker

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Additional Resources for Readers:

2014 Virginia On-Farm Soybean Test Plots

Virginia Soybean Update

Virginia Soybean Board

Meet Featherstone Farm.

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The Whittingtons are proud to carry on the family’s farming tradition which began nearly three centuries ago in Maryland and North Carolina. The family settled in Virginia in the 1920s when Juan Whittington’s grandfather bought the Amelia County farm. Juan and his wife Linda took responsibility over the operation in the 1970s, and today they live on the farm and manage the business alongside their son Colin and daughter-in-law Robyn.

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In past decades Featherstone Farm housed hogs and livestock, but today it is primarily a grain crop and seed operation. A conventional grain farmer purchases seed each year to obtain the best varieties, produces summer crops like soybeans or small grains in winter, harvests them, and sells the harvest to a grain buyer.

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Because Featherstone Farm is a seed business, their crops are processed in an on-farm facility through equipment that cleans plant residue and foreign material from each batch of harvested grain and removes any small or defective seeds that are not viable. Their cleaned seed is then bagged and available for sale to other farmers in the region. The seed varieties grown sold at Featherstone Farm represent the offerings of several companies that develop crop varieties each year with improved performance traits.

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Although the Whittington seed business is rather unique compared to neighboring farms, the family still must grow and manage their crops in the same manner as other grain farmers in the region. Oats, barley, and wheat are planted in the fall and harvested in spring. The Whittingtons practice double-cropping, meaning that they plant soybeans immediately after the wheat harvest in order to make a crop during the summer.

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In a “double-crop” system, soybeans are planted into the leftover plant residue from the preceding grain crop immediately after it is harvested.

Conservation is just as important to Featherstone Farm as good yields of high-quality seed. In fact, practices that preserve soil health and natural resources tend to favorably affect production. The Whittingtons follow a conservation plan that the Natural Resource Conservation Service developed for their farm. They also employ grass waterways, which prevent soil erosion.

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Perhaps their greatest conservation achievement is keeping the land in continuous “no-till” for the past thirty years, or “never-till,” as Colin Whittington describes it. In a conventional tillage system, land is worked up before each crop in order to incorporate lime and fertilizer with the soil, prepare a fine seed bed for planting, and mechanically disrupt weeds. However, tillage can destroy soil structure and lead to erosion, moisture loss, and soil compaction. In a no-till system, the land is not plowed, chiseled, or disked. Instead, leftover plant residue is left on the surface of the field after each year’s harvest, and the seeds of the subsequent crop are drilled through the surface residue down into the soil with minimal disturbance to ground. Microorganisms decompose the plant materials lying on the soil’s surface. “Every single year you use continuous no-till, you are adding organic matter,” says Colin Whittington. Soils high in organic matter from plant residue hold water more effectively, support the growth of soil microorganisms, resist compaction, and resist erosion. Colin cautions growers to use care when working on land that has been converted to no-till systems. “One thing that’s big is not driving over land when it is wet. That causes compaction. If it’s wet, we don’t drive over the land,” he says. Although they may have to wait a bit longer than usual to complete chores after wet weather, the Whittingtons understand that the good soil structure they have built over the years is a benefit too valuable to lose.

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No-till farming and variations of this system are widely accepted practices in Virginia, and farmers have a tradition of working with state and federal agencies like the Natural Resource Conservation Service to enact conservation plans and projects. “Farmers are doing the right things and have been for many years. These are not new practices for most,” says Colin.

Like any farmers, the Whittingtons spend most of their time managing their farm. However, they have invested years into promoting the future of the industry. Juan has served twenty-six years on the Virginia Soybean Board, which supports education, research, and marketing projects that improve profitability for soybean growers. Likewise, Colin Whittington has served nine years on the Virginia Soybean Association’s Board of Directors, where he advocates for the industry and facilitates opportunities to support growers. For example, the Virginia Soybean Board works jointly with Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Virginia Grain Producers Association to hold the annual educational Virginia Ag Expo.

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The Whittingtons also play a role in bringing new knowledge to fellow growers during their work right on their farm in Amelia. They have partnered with specialists like Dr. David Holshouser from Virginia Tech to host on-farm research plots. In 2014, their soybeans were used as part of a fungicide study. In past years, they have hosted on-farm trials that were used to collect data for university variety selection publications. In fact, their work with Virginia Tech’s small grain breeding program has enabled them to develop and sell three exclusive wheat varieties. A portion of the sales of these varieties goes back into the university’s research program, which provides valuable data to growers across the state who rely on up-to-date information to make good business decisions.

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Featherstone Farm, like many operations in Virginia, has seen incredible change over the last few decades, but the family has adapted by creating a niche, farming progressively, and embracing research-based management practices. Along the way, they have made it a priority to protect the resources on the land where they live and work. Agriculture may have its challenges, but the Whittington family is equipped to excel into the future and support fellow crop growers in Virginia along the way.

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Additional Resources for Readers:

Featherstone Farm Seed and Facebook page

Natural Resource Conservation Service-Virginia

Virginia Soybean Board : information about Soybean Checkoff and the VA Soybean Association

Crop Publications from Virginia Cooperative Extension

Virginia Soybean Update blog


Meet Taylor Clarke’s Soybean Test Plot

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Taylor Clarke hails from south Brunswick and serves Mecklenburg County as the agriculture Extension agent. Most of his work revolves around tobacco, crops, and cattle. Like many Extension agents across the state of Virginia, he also facilitates on-farm research that enables specialists to gauge performance of crops under varying treatments and conditions.

100_1050 (1024x768)Field trials and test plots are responsible for a broad spectrum of scientific advances in agriculture in past decades and these tests help agriculturalists make new progress each year. New fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides can be compared and tested on crops for safety and efficacy. Variety trials performed each year measure the performance of new seed for yield, hardiness, disease resistance, and other traits that can help farmers improve their efficiency and profitability. The end results of these tests are unbiased research-based recommendations that farmers can use to guide planting and purchasing decisions each year.

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Virginia Cooperative Extension’s crop specialists are primarily housed on-campus at Virginia Tech and Virginia State University or at one of eleven agricultural research and extension centers, commonly called “ARECs,” scattered across the state. These specialists perform research on the plots housed at the ARECs, but sometimes they also opt to take their research projects to outside farms.  In some cases, what happens when an experiment is run at the research station plot is not consistent with what happens when it is run on a working farm.  In other cases, the more plots that can be planted around the region, the better the data. For these reasons, specialists make on-farm work an integral part of their studies.

100_1136 (1024x768)This is where county Extension agents like Taylor come in. They communicate regularly with specialists and researchers and foster ongoing face-to-face relationships with local farmers. As a result, Extension agents can locate producers willing to host an on-farm plot and then manage and collect project data from planting to harvest with the support of specialists. Agents in Southside Virginia like Taylor work frequently with the specialists housed at the Southern Piedmont AREC in Blackstone or the Tidewater AREC in Suffolk. Although most data on test plots is compiled at the end of the season and must undergo analysis, farmers benefit in the short-term from these test plots when they are used for Extension field days and demonstrations. Many producers enjoy having the hands-on opportunity to see crop varieties planted side-by-side or visually evaluate plants as they grow in disease resistance or disease treatment plots. 100_1040 (1024x768)

Taylor Clarke runs several tests plots each year, including a 2013 test on his farm evaluating performance of soybeans with and without treatment for soybean rust. Soybean rust, a challenging foliar fungal disease, entered the state in late summer this year and had the potential to hurt yields in field where beans had not reached the “R6” maturity stage. Bean seeds in plants that have reached this stage appear full-sized and are touching within the pod; once the plant reaches this point, infection with soybean rust will not cause significant yield loss. However, specialists worried that some double-crop beans and late-maturing beans had not yet reached R6 when soybean rust entered Virginia this year, so Taylor’s test plot was an effort to evaluate the potential impact of treating double-crop soybean beans that could undergo yield loss if the disease were left unchecked.

100_1059 (1024x768)The field was planted and various sections were treated according to a predetermined experimental design. Because untreated soybean rust hurts yield in plants that have not reached R6 maturity, Taylor chose to use yield as a means to evaluate the performance of the treatments. To collect his data, Taylor used a combine to harvest each section of the plot individually. For every test section of the plot that was cut, the beans were unloaded into a weigh wagon. Each load was then weighed and evaluated for moisture content of the seeds and test weight of the seeds. Test weight measurements give the number of pounds of soybeans in a bushel. After each strip was cut, Taylor measured the length of the harvested strip in order to determine the square feet harvested. He can now use all of his data to determine parameters such as the predicted number of bushels per acre that each test section yielded.

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Harvested beans are unloaded into a weigh wagon.

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The wagon weighs each load from the combine.

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Moisture levels are tested for each load of beans.

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Lunenburg agent Lindy Tucker assists Taylor by measuring test weight on beans from each load.

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Taylor measures the length of each harvested strip in the plot.

On-farm research plots are not the only thing keeping Virginia Cooperative Extension agents like Taylor busy on a day-to-day basis. Other duties include taking phone calls, visiting farmers daily to assist with troubleshooting and management decisions, teaching and facilitating workshops and educational activities, and providing information to meet the needs of agricultural producers, homeowners, and landowners.  Nonetheless, test plots remain a vital part of Extension work because agents appreciate the value that on-farm research brings to agriculture and the role these projects serve in bringing credible, up-to-date information to the people who help grow the nation’s food.

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100_1107 (1024x768)Additional Resources for Readers:

Virginia Soybean Update Blog with Articles Listed by Topic

Virginia On-Farm Soybean Test Plots 2013