David Peters of Manteno, IL, is a bean counter and proud of it. Normally, the term is applied somewhat derogatorily to accountants, bookkeepers and others who keep track of financial details. But bean counter may be a coveted title for farmers like Peters who trim seed costs by selecting soybean varieties with more seeds per pound.
While seed count isn't the only criterion Peters uses to select varieties - he still looks at yield, herbicide resistance and disease - it does figure into his decision. Peters calculates his crop budgets and orders varieties based on 3,100 seeds/lb. Most Midwestern varieties usually average 2,500-2,700 seeds/lb. But Southern varieties are smaller-seeded, sometimes running more than 4,000 seeds/lb.
Buying varieties with more seeds per pound stretches the price, including a tech fee, over more acres. For example, say you're going to drill 175,000 seeds/acre. That takes 70 lbs of seed at 2,500 seeds/lb but 56 lbs of seed at 3,100 seeds/lb. The smaller-seeded lot lets you plant 25% more ground.
Peters isn't alone in taking a hard look at the numbers.
"Seed size and seed count are getting more attention than they used to," says Don Schafer, Pioneer's general manager for oilseed crops. "Growers are paying more attention to the seed-per-pound count."
Joe Burris, formerly at Iowa State University is now a private seed production adviser. He says, "Looking at seeds per pound is a natural evolution as farmers get sharper and sharper pencils. You're getting more plants per dollar."
Agronomists point out that small-seeded lots carry the same genetic material as their bigger-seeded brethren. And Jim Beuerlein, Ohio State University extension soybean specialist, is quick to dispel the myth that smaller seed doesn't have the energy to emerge well.
"The seed put on the market today has plenty of energy reserves to get out of the ground," he says.
Average seed counts for varieties are easy to find in catalogs, brochures and on seed tags. However, companies have no control over seed size. That's the result of each variety's genetics and the weather during pollination and pod fill.
Peters starts asking seed company sales reps about varieties and seed size at early fall field days. The grower then continues to track seed size with the company until he places his order.
"You can ask, 'What do you have in this variety in a particular seed count per pound?' " he says. "You can usually pick something."