It's back to counting beans for growers throughout the Southeast, as the lure of high prices and low inputs has combined to spur a dramatic increase in soybean acreage.

In Alabama alone, soybeans increased by 140,000 acres from last year's crop, bringing the planted acres to 330,000, the highest since 1998. The state's crop, says Auburn University Extension Soybean Specialist Dennis Delaney, could best be described as “varied” in late July.

“We've got a variety of growth stages from the northern part of the state to the south,” says Delaney. “In north Alabama, we had a lot of beans double-cropped behind wheat, and in many cases the late-spring planting conditions were either too wet or too dry. Some of the beans went in later than we'd like to see.”

There was a scarcity of seed at planting, he says, and maturity groups within the state range from III to VI. “Many growers planted whatever they could get. I think we'll be close to the NASS estimate of 330,000 acres, but the seed shortage might have had some sort of impact,” says Delaney.

One of the growers jumping on the bean bandwagon is Stanley Wisener, who farms in the east-central Alabama counties of Macon, Tallapoosa and Lee.

“Soybeans will help spread our workload in the fall, and the risks aren't as great as with other crops,” says Wisener. “We're coming off two bad years in a row here — probably the worst years we've seen, so the good prices and the low inputs brought us back to soybeans.”

This marks the first time Wisener has grown soybeans in six to seven years. “At the time, we were growing them behind wheat. This year, we just planted them no-till in fields where a very poor cotton crop had been last year. The price got up to around $12 per bushel, and I thought that was pretty good, so I booked about 25 bushels per acre. Now, I'm kicking myself and hoping I can make 50 bushels and make a little money,” he says.

In addition to about 200 acres of soybeans, Wisener also is growing 700 acres of cotton and 300 acres of corn. More than half of his land is irrigated, and he always makes sure he can water corn.

“Whatever we grew or made last year depended on irrigation — it took turning it on and leaving it on. And this was even before the cost of fuel and fertilizer really took off. Soybeans looked attractive last year, and they looked better and better as the year wore on,” he says.

Before planting soybeans, Wisener burned down in early March with Roundup and 2,4-D. After planting, he made another application of Roundup along with Ammo to take care of grasshoppers and other insect pests.

“We planted straight into the old cotton row pattern, on 38-inch rows. I wish we were still on 30-inch rows. They worked much better for us because they shaded more quickly, especially the Group IV beans. This year's crop had me worried in the beginning because we weren't getting much rain, but we finally starting catching some showers, and they've bushed out nicely,” he says.

Wisener planted with a John Deere vacuum planter equipped for no-till planting with coulters, sweeps and closing wheels. Soybean seed was scarce this year, he says, but he planted mostly a Group V Asgrow variety, inoculating the seed with Apron Max seed treatment.

“With most of our varieties in the mid-Group V range, we should be harvesting soybeans at the end of September or early October. I hope that timing works out so we'll be finished with corn. That's why I didn't go with an earlier Group IV bean — it probably would have interfered with cutting corn,” he says.

Wisener says he went through the field with a hooded sprayer at layby with Roundup and Classic. “We had a lot of alfalfa hoppers and grasshoppers, so I sprayed some Brigade and put out some borosol at about the R1 stage. Once we starting catching some rainfall, we began applying some fungicide at about the R4 stage. With the rain showers, conditions have turned more favorable for a disease complex. It's worth the money and it makes you sleep better,” he says.

Asian soybean rust hasn't made it as far as central Alabama, but it's always a concern, says Wisener. “It's a definite concern. You just try to keep up with the disease's movement on the Internet, and you keep in close contact with your consultant to find out what they're hearing. Soybean rust is probably one of the biggest fears to growing soybeans. We have plenty of good products, and the price is up to a point to where we can justify spraying soybeans now. But the disease has the potential to come in and wipe you out — it's a scary situation,” he says.

(Asian soybean rust was found in a sentinel soybean plot in Fairhope, Ala., on the state's Gulf Coast in late July.)

Wisener believes he'll continue growing soybeans, especially if the price stays favorable. “We just can't take the risk of growing dryland corn, especially now with fertilizer prices being what they are. It would have to be soybeans or peanuts. But you need extra equipment for peanuts, it's a much slower harvest, and the peanuts come off when the cotton is ready. If the price stays at about $12 per bushel, you could even justify watering soybeans, especially when following wheat,” he says.

In late July, Wisener was estimating that his soybean crop might yield in the 35 to 40-bushels-per-acre range. “Five weeks ago, it didn't look so good, but I'm feeling better about it,” he says.