Soybeans have tremendous yield potential, as Georgia farmer Alex Harrell proved. He harvested soybeans averaging 206.7997 bushels per acre from a 2.5-acre irrigated plot, shattering the previous world record of 190.23 bushels, set in 2019.
Harrell raises full-season and double-crop soybeans, corn, wheat and watermelons near Smithville, Georgia, with his father, Rodney. He farms to push yields in every field.
“My goal is to average 100 bushels per acre with full-season soybeans and 80 bushels per acre for double-crop soybeans following wheat,” he says.
Average soybean yields in Georgia are about 45 bushels per acre.
With that mindset, Harrell uses plots like this one for on-farm research, testing practices that boost yield — and return on investment. While field averages haven’t yet consistently reached those numbers, applying proven, profitable practices learned from test plots has him moving toward his goals. The soy checkoff funds research on many of the practices he incorporates across his farm.
For his full-season soybeans, Harrell selects indeterminate maturity group 4 varieties with good standability in southwest Georgia. While he considers defensive traits, he plans to use fungicides to fight disease.
He seeds a four-way cover crop mix on all his acres in the fall and burns it down in the spring. Then Harrell plants early, aiming to strip-till full-season soybeans into cover crop residue in late March or early April.
He irrigates all his full-season soybeans and 75% to 80% of his double-crop soybeans. He relies on a combination of experience and continually improving soil moisture sensor technology to time watering.
“With cover crops, I use 30% less water to irrigate my soybeans,” Harrell says. “They dramatically reduce soil erosion and improve water infiltration.”
Harrell relies on herbicide-tolerant seed technology for post-emergence weed control. He manages diseases and insects with at-plant and in-season pesticides. However, he says crop rotation is key to managing nematodes.
“Spoon-feeding nutrients throughout the season based on weekly tissue samples makes a huge impact on soybean yield across the board,” he explains. “Soybeans take up about two-thirds of their nutrients after reproduction starts.”
He applies poultry litter prior to planting — timing that supports early growth. He tailors in-season nutrient management based on tissue analysis, applying needed nutrients via banding within 3 inches of the plants, Y-drops, foliar application or fertigation.
Research has found that foliar fertilizers rarely increase yield. Harrell both agrees and disagrees.
“Many foliar fertilizer products don’t work or don’t work in every crop, regardless of the content,” Harrell explains. “Those products that do work show up immediately in our weekly tissue analysis, and they make a difference.”
Over-applying fertilizer or mistiming applications doesn’t pay, especially in sandy soils where 5-inch rains are common, making it easy to lose nutrients to leaching.
“I use less fertilizer than I did before,” he says. “I just apply it in many more trips.”
He calls plant growth regulators a game changer. He applies PGRs focused on root and shoot development during vegetative stages. He switches to formulations that support flowering, pod development and grain fill during reproductive stages. And, he actively manages the crop through the end of the growing season.
“It’s a system approach,” he says. “I apply a lot of inputs that work together, and every application includes multiple products. Timing is critical, but the effort does create a strong return on investment.”