5 Ways to Protect Your Soybean Crop from Drought

January 31, 2023

Even though overall precipitation in South Dakota is high so far this winter, much of the state still remains designated as between D0 (abnormally dry) to D2 (severe drought) as of January 19, 2023, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

A soybean field with plants yellowing and dropping leaves in larger portion of the field while the rest of the field has green soybean plants.
Image Source: SDSU Extension

Snow and rainfall totals over the next few months prior to planting season will be critical to adequate soil moisture levels. And then, of course, how much rainfall we get throughout key periods of the growing season will also play an important role in attaining yield potential.

But if there’s anything predictable about the weather, it’s that it’s unpredictable.

Think Proactively About Drought

Some things will forever remain out of your control. What you can do, however, is safeguard your operation as best you can against the effects of drought and moisture-deficient conditions.

Here are five things to look at to better prepare yourself for whatever weather conditions come your way:

1. Seed Selection

It’s important to take a variety’s ability to withstand dry growing conditions and drought into account during your seed selection process. “The best management practice starts with seed selection,” says David Karki, SDSU Extension Agronomy Field Specialist. “Genetics play a huge role.”

Your seed dealer or certified crop advisor (CCA) can provide insight into the right varieties for your particular conditions and growing considerations. You can also tap into SDSU Extension’s Crop Performance Testing data for university trial results that offer a transparent comparison and contrast between varieties.

“Seed companies will send their varieties to test and compare with other genetics,” explains Karki. “Our job is to plant, grow and harvest that see and then analyze the data. We publish that data every year on our website.”

It should also be noted that through their checkoff, soybean growers are currently funding research efforts to develop increased drought tolerance in soybeans. Such innovation could help stabilize yields and provide more flexibility to producers growing soybeans in moisture-deficient conditions.

2. Soil Management Practices

Soil management is increasingly touted as one of the most valuable tools in a producer’s toolbox. Among the many benefits of soil management is its capacity to aid moisture retention.

Start by examining your tillage strategy. Conventional tillage will bring moisture-rich soil to the surface, where evaporation can dry out the topsoil and exacerbate your challenges. That’s one of the reasons agronomists have placed increased emphasis on no-till and min-till practices — particularly when faced with the effects of drought — that will help retain much-needed moisture in your soil.

Sticking to a consistent crop rotation can also be an effective soil management practice to ward off the effects of drought and drought-like conditions.

3. Cover Crops

Building on these soil management practices, incorporating cover crops can also be beneficial in your efforts to mitigate risks associated with drought by improving soil properties.

SDSU Extension offers numerous resources for growing cover crops. Given the typical winter in South Dakota, Karki recommends cereal rye as a particularly effective cover crop to plant after corn and ahead of soybeans.

“Cereal rye has been a go-to cover crop,” says Karki. “It works like a charm.” If dry weather patterns persist into the spring, however, Karki advises terminating the winter annual early so that it does not consume too much moisture from your soil prior to planting soybeans.

Growth of winter cereal rye cover crop. The field was seeded the previous fall at the corn physiological maturity stage. Source: SDSU Extension

4. Planting Date

Your planting date can also impact how well your soybean crop manages dry growing conditions. Planting earlier in the season when more moisture is typically more available gives soybean plants a better opportunity to establish healthy root development and more effectively withstand dry periods.

Be mindful of factors such as soil temperature as well as the risk of a late frost, but early planting can be an effective strategy for managing against the potential of drought conditions.

5. Risk Management

As noted earlier, weather conditions are completely out of your control and can be rather unpredictable. That’s why, in addition to the aforementioned on-farm tactics, you need to hedge against loss through a combination of crop insurance and grain marketing strategies.

Karki notes that SDSU Extension’s team of experts includes a business management field specialist who is available to provide consultation and other resources. You might also have a trusted local advisor who can provide support.

Regardless, tap into whatever resources you have available to make informed business decisions for your operation when managing risk.

Developing More Resilience

Drought can take a serious toll on your soybean yields and overall profitability.

And while nothing can entirely insulate your soybean crop, hopefully putting some of these ideas into practice can help your operation develop more resilience against the effects of drought.