On Aug. 23, Alex Harrell shattered the world soybean record with a yield of 206.7997 bushels per acre on his Smithville, Georgia, farm. The 33-year-old producer farms about 3,000 acres of wheat, soybeans, corn, and watermelons with his father, Rodney, in Lee and Sumter Counties.
Dewey Lee, former University of Georgia agronomist of 35 years, calls Harrell an out-of-the-box thinker. With an openness to different crops and ideas, and a hunger to learn, the young farmer likes challenging himself and others around him, Lee says. “He’s always on that edge.”
“I’ve got to give credit where credit is due,” Harrell says. Until Randy Dowdy — who holds the previous record of 190 bushels per acre — came along, nobody associated high-yielding soybeans with Georgia. Dowdy’s achievements helped Harrell believe the challenges of the South’s sandy, low CEC, low organic matter soils could be overcome. “He gave me something to chase.”
Harrell has worked with Dowdy and other record-setting farmers through the Total Acre Program, and credits the group for many of the lessons he’s learned.
Record-setting soybean growing season
Fall 2022: Corn harvest, burn down, and cover crop
Corn was harvested from the record-setting field last year. After harvest, a burndown treatment was applied and a cereal rye, triticale, Daikon radish, and oats cover crop mix was planted. Harrell variable rate applied lime in the fall and spread gypsum to build calcium levels.
April 5: Soybeans were planted
Harrell planted 85,000 seeds per acre into “pretty good conditions” on April 5. The soybeans were a Group 4 indeterminate variety from Asgrow, AG48X9. They planted on 30 inch row width.
April 6: Hard packing rain
The day after planting, a hard, packing rain swept through the region. A final stand of 77,000 plants per acre emerged after the precipitation. Emergence was even, but not all the planted seeds came up.
“We knew we were going to push this field really hard this year, and we had our goal yield number in mind. When that rain happened, that kind of let the air out of me,” Harrell admits.
Despite the lower-than-expected stand, Harrell and his crop consultant, Caleb Traugh, never deviated from the plan. “We just stuck with it like we had a perfect stand,” Harrell says.
June: Rain event
The farm had a 10-day rain event in June, which “did not help matters.”
Halfway through the 2023 growing season
By mid-growing season, Harrell had nearly forgotten about the early April storm. It seemed the team had turned everything around.
Other than the two major rain events, the season was favorable with cool nighttime temperatures in the 60s and warm days. It wasn’t overly hot during pollination, but there was sunshine.
“I knew we had 150 bushel soybeans,” he says. “I didn’t know how much better than that until [Aug. 22].”
Aug. 11: Sprayed a desiccant
Without cold weather to shut down the plant, desiccation is common in the South. “They’re not a determinant, so they don’t mature and then the leaves fall off. They stay green. The beans will be mature and dry, but the stalks and leaves will still be on and growing,” he says. Desiccation kills the plant so the crop can be harvested.
Aug. 23: Record soybean yield of 206.7997 was harvested
Once harvest started in the plot, Harrell figured he had 175 bushel beans, breaking Kip Cullers’ 2010 record, but falling short of Randy Dowdy’s 190-bushel record set in 2019.
“It all came down to test weight. We had heavy beans from late season management,” Harrell says. “The beans were just massive.”
A local University of Georgia Extension agent, Doug Collins, was on hand to verify the record-breaking soybean yield. He was in the combine with Harrell to watch the yield monitor climb as they harvested the 2.5-acre contest plot. “It was surreal to see those numbers. Those are numbers I’ve only seen in a corn field before,” says Harrell.
Richard Roth, University of Georgia Extension grains and soybean agronomist, notes Harrell’s new soybean record is higher than the state’s average corn yield.
Agronomic practices for record-breaking soybean yields
“Every acre of my farm gets soil sampled on one-acre grids every single year,” says Harrell. The tighter the grid, the better the feel you can get for what is going on in the field, he adds. “You have to do it every year.”
Harrell has started focusing on base saturations on what the soil samples say.
No matter what was going on, Harrell pulled tissue samples every Monday between emergence and desiccation. “They were a key part of the program, building a trend line to see where our nutritional values were,” he explains.
Any foliar product or other application decisions were based on those consistent tissue samples.
Late season management
Harrell says his heavy beans are directly correlated with late-season management. “Mark Coots, of TEVA Corporation, has told me time and time again that a soybean plant takes up almost three-quarters of the fertilizer of its lifetime after the reproduction stage. That’s usually when people are done with them.”
Once the soybeans start blooming and putting on pods, many farmers walk away and let them fill out, explains Harrell. “We never stopped.”
Mother Nature’s cooperation
“In Georgia, we’re blessed with extremely long growing seasons,” explains Roth. Getting soybeans planted in early April is an advantage for farmers in the state, he says.
In addition to favorable temperatures through the growing season, Harrell is thankful to have avoided hurricane damage thus far. He’s pushing to finish corn harvest now because, “any day we could have a hurricane blow in.”
He explains with a Group 4, indeterminate soybean variety, excessive rain and humidity can wreak havoc. If hurricane-driven rains had hit the farm after desiccation, rot would have been certain. “That 206-bushel yield could have gone to 20 in a week.”
He adds, there aren’t many Group 4 varieties grown in Georgia for that reason.