This spring, you'll probably feel like you're planting soybeans with one arm tied behind your back.

That's because much of this year's seed supply has subnormal germination rates. Normally, the standard soybean seed germination rate is 90%. This year, though, the industry lowered its standard germination level to 85%. If you haven't yet locked in your seed supplies, you may have to buy seed with even lower germination rates.

“You may have to settle for a 70% germination level in soybeans,” says Tim Gutormson, president of Midwest Seed Services, a Brookings, SD, seed-testing firm.

You'll also face tight seed supplies. If you haven't bought your Roundup Ready soybeans by now, you're probably too late. “There are still soybeans available, but you may not get the technology you want,” Gutormson says.

Multiple demons. Last year, several factors teamed up to wallop soybean seed germination rates and supplies. Diseases such as Sudden Death Syndrome dented seed quality and production. Outbreaks of the soybean bean leaf beetle also spread soybean seed mottle virus in the soybean seed-producing regions of southern and western Iowa. “This causes a discoloring of the seed coat and poor germination in extreme cases,” says Bill Latham, president of Latham Seed Company, Alexander, IA.

Hot and dry weather also decreased seed germination. “On Labor Day weekend, we had temperatures over 100° in central Iowa,” says Don Schafer, general manager for oilseeds and field crops for Pioneer Hi-Bred International. “These hot temperatures sped along the maturation process, which hurt seed quality.”

By rapidly drying down soybeans to an ultralow 8 to 9% moisture, the adverse weather set the stage for mechanical damage at harvest that lowered germination, Schafer explains.

Seed quality and supply varies among companies. “We're fighting small seed size,” Latham says. “But other companies that we deal with on occasion have some rationing going on with regard to available seed supplies. Yields were lower, and some of the lots that were conditioned did not have sufficient germination to bring to market.”

Not all seed lots have low germination. “Much of our seed will make 90%, but an awful lot will also be 85%,” Schafer says.

Seed companies also are discounting low-germination lots. For example, Pioneer has reduced 80% germination units by $1, and 75% germination lots by $2.50.

However, these discounts won't benefit you if you can't obtain seed, such as Roundup Ready varieties. “There has been intense farmer demand for Roundup Ready soybeans,” Latham says. “As an industry, we expected that to a degree, but it's even more than we expected. We upped our Roundup Ready soybean production considerably, but it still wasn't enough.”

If you still need seed, remember that most companies have a good inventory of conventional soybeans. “In many cases, the conventional beans contain some outstanding genetics,” Latham says.

Easy does it. Low germination makes gentle seed handling paramount, says Chuck Hansen, production manager for Stine Seed, Adel, IA. “Throwing bagged seed in pickups can hurt seed quality, especially this year,” he says.

Ditto for soybean seed in a bulk-handling unit. “The old gravity box wagon with a steel flight auger is not the best way to move seed,” Schafer says. “This would be a good time to update your system.”

Schafer says that, in general, bulk transfer systems that use belts do the least damage to seed.

Convey-All manufactures a bean tender that uses a belt conveyer to deliver seed to the planter or drill. Company officials say that, through gentle handling, the conveyer prevents damage to even extra-dry seed. Depending on options, the list price ranges from $4,650 to $5,922. For more information, contact Convey-All, Dept. FIN, Box 175, Hamilton, ND 58238, 800/454-3875.

Sudenga Industries has steel core brush flighting for 4-, 6-, 7-, 8- and 10-in. augers. The flighting, which Sudenga officials say reduces material damage while maintaining high capacity, fits most units that currently use conventional all-steel flighting. The cost of the bristle flighting is $25 to $31/ft. For more information, contact Sudenga Industries, Dept. FIN, Box 8, George, IA 51237, 888/783-3642.

Friesen of Iowa markets a bulk seed tender that uses brush flighting. The suggested manufacturer's retail price for the tender is $5,100, and an optional trailer costs $2,795. For more information, contact Friesen of Iowa, Dept. FIN, Box 158, Williams, IA 50271, 800/847-2642.

Batco Manufacturing recently purchased the Seed Shuttle. Two models — a 2-unit and a 4-unit — transfer seed into a planter or drill via bristle flighting. Depending upon options, cost ranges from $5,600 to $10,000. For more information, contact Batco Mfg., Dept. FIN, Box 331, Swift Current, Saskatchewan, Canada S9H 3V8, 306/773-7779, www.batcomfg.com.

Lundell Plastics Corporation manufactures plastic cup flighting that consists of high-density polyethylene with a cupped design. Lundell assembles each poly-flight module onto a mild steel or stainless steel hexagon tube. The flighting is available in 5-, 6- and 7-in. diameters. Prices for the cupped flighting range from $17.50 to $23.86/ft., depending on diameter. For more information, contact Lundell Plastics Corp., Dept. FIN, 400 W. Market St., Odebolt, IA 51458, 712/668-2400.

Sidebar: Planting pointers

You can make the most of low-quality seed by following these tips from the experts at Pioneer Hi-Bred International:

Do not plant early. Because seed quality already is fragile, planting into cold and wet soils could further slice germination rates.

“We'll make sure that we have a dry seedbed, especially on our no-till,” says Jack Appleby, a Team FIN member from Atwood, IL. “The last thing we want to do is mud the crop in.”

Little evidence exists that early planting benefits yields, says Don Schafer, Pioneer general manager for oilseeds and field crops. Pioneer research at Johnston, IA, points to little or no advantage for planting soybeans before April 25. The company studies showed that yields remained fairly constant through mid-May planting.

Base seed treatment purchases upon reality. Seed treatments do a good job of protecting seed against damage from soilborne pathogens, such as Pythium and Phytophthora. However, they can only protect existing quality, Schafer says. Seed treatments cannot convert low-quality seed into high-quality seed.

Check seed size carefully on the seed tag when switching lots or varieties, and adjust the planter accordingly. Though most 2001 seed sizes are nearly normal, some lots are small-seeded or variable in size.

Use the correct seed disk and planter transmission setting. Remember to adjust the planting rate to reflect the germination percentage of each seed lot.

Check actual population and plant spacing under field conditions. The planter charts only provide a starting point for calibration.

Do not exceed the planter manufacturer's recommended ground speed.