Farmer preparing planter for spring

(Photo: Iowa Soybean Association / Joclyn Bushman)

From seeding rates to biologicals

February 22, 2024 | Jeff Hutton

“How can we support you on productivity, in a profitable way and do it in a way that is sustainable?” Alexander Litvin, Ph.D., asked a crowd gathered for the Iowa Soybean Association’s (ISA) Innovation to Profit event in Lewis.

The ISA Research Center for Farming Innovation (RCFI) research agronomy lead assured farmers that the organization is working to help build value for ISA farmer-members and all soybean farmers in the state.

Litvin and his ISA colleagues shared information on a variety of topics, all designed to maximize a farmer’s return on investment (ROI).

He says ISA wants to highlight diverse ways that can help improve a farmer’s bottom line through research and conservation, applying that information and practices that will prove successful.

“Ultimately you have to think about what’s best for your farm,” Litvin says. “We farm a commodity, but you and your farmland are not commodities. You are unique and what is grown on your farm is very different from your neighbor’s.”

Seeding rates

ISA Research Agronomist Drew Clemmensen offered a brief insight into seeding rate trials, showcasing opportunities that farmers might think about before planting.

“How can we manage that part of the equation?” he asks. “Everything else moves up and down and the one commodity that never goes down is the seed cost.

Reviewing trials from 2023 over 35 different locations, ISA and participating producers looked at planting dates, tillage practices, use of cover crops, seed treatments and equipment while focusing on the rates (80,000, 110,000, 140,000 and 170,000 seeds per acre).

“The general concept is that if I’m going to plant more seed, I’m going to get more leaf area, more branches, more flowers, more pods, more yield, then I’m going to get more money,” he says. “That’s not necessarily true."

“Margins get slim. Are we investing more than what we’re getting out?”

Early figures suggest, Clemmensen says, that 110,000 soybean seeds per acre will still allow for a positive ROI, but cautions every farm, every acre is different.

Planting earlier, Clemmensen says, may yield greater numbers, but results in testing showed there was not a huge drop-off with planting dates, adding ISA will continue this study in 2024.

ISA, he adds, is also looking at how planting dates can impact weed and pest pressures, nutrient availability and moisture.

“Our recommendation is that you do your own seeding rates on your own farm,” he says, adding producers can reach out to RCFI to help set up those trials.

“These are helping to drive some decision-making tools with our analytics team – for what works and what doesn’t,” he says.


During the event, Clemmensen touched on the use of biologicals – a varied group of products derived from naturally-occurring microorganisms, plant extracts, beneficial insects or other organic materials.

He says some of the big players in the agriculture industry are committing more money and research in the biological space, and the numbers are growing.

In 2021, Clemmensen says $3.33 billion was invested by various companies. In 2022, that number reached $3.79 billion. By 2029, he says those numbers are expected to double.

And although herbicides and chemicals are $33-35 billion of the ag inputs sector in North America, there’s no question biologicals are here to stay.

“You can see how the growth is going,” Clemmensen says. “That’s why we’re staying invested in the biological market. We’re taking the direction of you, the board and our committees.”

He says biologicals have mainly been focused on fruits and vegetables, but use of biologicals in the row crop market is growing.

Clemmensen and ISA Director of Research Joe McClure say while research continues in the area of biologicals, not enough data has been captured to make any definitive recommendations.

However, they agree that the continued research is worth exploring.

What works for you?

ISA Conservation Agronomist Joe Wuebker says ISA wants to bridge the gap between retail agronomists and farmers, helping find the right solutions that make economic and environmental sense.

ISA wants to assist farmers in optimizing cover crops utilization, which has shown to help reduce erosion and keep inputs where they belong, Wuebker notes. It’s also proven to improve water and soil quality, while also improving wildlife habitat in the process.

“These things take time,” he says. “After hundreds of years of farming, it takes more than a few years to get back to where we were. We want to make sure our soils are there—the structure and the organic matter—so we can continue to farm.”

ISA recognizes it’s a long-term approach, but the economic benefits through cover crops and conservation could yield positives like:

  • Reduced fuel usage;
  • Reduced chemical inputs;
  • Grazing opportunities; and
  • Secondary crops.

He says farmers getting a game plan together is key, and making sure everyone is involved in the discussion – suppliers, retailers, agronomists and farming neighbors.

“Be aware, prepared and flexible,” Wuebker says about cover crops.

With farming, nothing is set in stone, be it weather or the market. With cover crops, farmers must be ready to pivot and make decisions on the fly, while remaining open to other options as they pop up.

Wuebker says there are multiple factors associated with cover crops decisions including:

Termination, whether natural, chemical or mechanical.

Timing, considering pre-planting, post-planting (pay attention to biomass issues – anything after 12-18 inches is more likely to run into termination issues), and weather.

There can also be issues surrounding the amount of residue and planter considerations that must be made, and too often, scouting needs to be addressed. Too often, Wuebker says, scouting is overlooked, but is even more important as a farmer gets into cover crops.

Wuebker says ISA is there to help producers in all these areas. They are also available to help navigate cost-share options, guiding farmers to where the money can be found to help cover and/or defray costs.

Wuebker told the Lewis audience that he’s part of a group of 13 people in the Carroll area who gather frequently to share ideas on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to cover crops.

“It’s a huge wealth of knowledge that comes out of those meetings,” he says, adding he and ISA are willing to help others facilitate similar meetings.

Walking the path

Like Wuebker, ISA Data Analyst Anthony Martin encourages farmers to consult with those who know what works and what doesn’t – ISA research agronomists, ISA conservation agronomists and other trusted advisors.

Martin says every farmer and their experiences are unique and the focus must be very individualized.

“The definition of success is different for everyone,” he says.

Litvin says farming is sometimes a journey into the great unknown.

“There’s never an endgame,” he says. “It’s always a journey, and it’s a journey that never ends. We might not always have the answers, but we can definitely show you the direction and will walk that path with you.”

For more information about ISA and RFCI, research news, results and opportunities to participate in future trials, go to: