Reducing soybean planting rates can increase income

Results from 49 on-farm replicated trials conducted in Michigan from 2015 to 2019 build a compelling case for reducing soybean planting rates.

Soybean plant
Photo by Mike Staton, MSU Extension.

Michigan soybean producers have consistently identified planting rates as the highest priority topic to evaluate in on-farm replicated trials. Furthermore, the producers wanted to evaluate the effect of low planting rates on soybean yield and income. The two factors driving the increased interest in reducing soybean planting rates are seed cost and white mold. To help Michigan soybean producers make planting rate decisions, the soybean on-farm research program conducted a total of 49 on-farm replicated trials from 2015 to 2019. See Figure 1 for the trial locations.

Eleven planting rate trials were conducted each year from 2015 to 2017, seven trials were conducted in 2018 and nine in 2019. Four target planting rates (80,00, 100,000, 130,000 and 160,000 seeds per acre) were compared at all but one location where the lowest rate was not included. Stand counts were taken to determine actual final plant stands at each location in all years. To calculate the income (gross income minus seed cost) generated by each planting rate, we used the USDA projected prices and average seed costs for treated seed for each year. None of the varieties planted in the trials were straight line or thin line plant types and a complete seed treatment was used at 41 of the locations.

Map of planting locations
Figure 1. Planting rate trial locations.

Because we conducted the trials over five years, we learned how the planting rates performed over a range of growing conditions. Planting conditions were nearly ideal in 2015 but were much more challenging in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 as evidenced by the average stand loss shown in Table 1. Statewide record yields were achieved in 2015 and again in 2016. However, yields declined significantly in 2017 due to excessive early rains and a lack of rain in August and September. Yields rebounded in 2018 but fell again in 2019 due to planting delays and dry weather in August.

Table 1. Average stand loss in the planting rate trials


Average stand loss for all planting rates (percent)











Table 2 shows the average yield and income for all 49 locations. When all 49 sites were combined, the yields from the highest two planting rates were identical and they beat the 100,000 seeds per acre planting rate by less than one bushel per acre and the 80,000 rate by only 2.2 bushels per acre. The 100,000 seeds per acre planting rate generated the most income while the 160,000 rate produced the least income.

Table 2. Planting rate effects on average yield and income from 2015 to 2019 (all 49locations)

Planting rate

Average yield (bu/ac)

*Gross income – seed cost ($/ac)


59.9 c



61.4 b



62.1 a



62.3 a


*Using 2019 figures for seed cost ($60/140,000 seed unit) and market price ($9 per bushel).

The effects of soybean planting rates on yield and income by year are shown in Figure 2. The bars represent yield and the lines represent income. The figure clearly shows the year-to-year variability in yield and income. It also shows that the lowest two planting rates were the most profitable in 2015 and 2018 and the highest planting rate was the least profitable each year.

Figure 2 
Figure 2. Planting rate effects on soybean yield and income from 2015 to 2019.

Two of the trials were infested with white mold showing that reducing soybean planting rates can also be an effective management practice for reducing yield and income losses from white mold (Table 3). At both sites, the lowest planting rate produced $80 per acre more income than the highest planting rate. Figure 3 shows how planting rates affected white mold in the 2018 Saginaw location. This site was planted in 30-inch rows.

Table 3. Soybean planting rate effects on yield and income at two locations infested with white mold.

Planting rate

Yield (bu/ac)

Income ($/ac)

2015 Sanilac 2

2018 Saginaw

2015 Sanilac 2

2018 Saginaw


63.2 a

66.2 a




61.1 b

66.5 a




61.5 b

64.3 a




57.9 c

61.2 b



LSD 0.10





*Using 2019 figures for seed cost ($60/140,000 seed unit) and market price ($9 per bushel)

Drone image of soybean field
Figure 3. Drone image showing planting rate effects on white mold incidence at the 2018 Saginaw trial.

Nearly half of the planting rate trials were conducted in Tuscola and Sanilac counties, so the Thumb area has been well represented. However, we are looking for sites in mid-Michigan, southwest Michigan and southeast Michigan for 2020 as we want producers in these areas to have local research results. We also want to collect enough data to be able to make specific planting rate recommendations based on management practices such as tillage intensity, seed treatments, planting date, row spacing, etc. This trial is very easy to conduct when the planter is equipped with electric or hydraulic variable rate drives. Please contact me, Mike Staton, by phone at 269-673-0370 ext. 2562 or by email at if you are interested in in conducting a soybean planting rate trial on your farm in 2020.

This article was previously published in Michigan Soybean On-Farm Research 2019.

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