Soybean seeding rates decline as row widths increase over time

Bar and line chart showing soybean seeding rates and row widths from 1997 to 2018.

Changes in technology and higher seed costs have shifted the way farmers plant soybeans in the United States. Between 1997 and 2018, soybean seeding rates—the number of seeds planted per acre—declined by 22 percent on U.S. farms. In 1997, farmers planted an average of more than 200,000 soybean seeds per acre. The seeding rate fell to about 192,000 in 2002, then to 175,000 in 2006, 165,000 in 2012, and finally to 157,000 in 2018. The decline in seeding rates was accompanied by an increase in row widths, or the distance between planting rows. From 1997 to 2002, the average U.S. soybean row width declined from 17 inches to 16 inches. Average row widths subsequently increased to 18 inches in 2006 and to 20 inches in 2012. The average row width remained at about 20 inches in 2018. In addition to fewer rows being planted per acre in recent years, other factors are linked with the decline in soybean seeding rates, such as planting method. The two most commonly used planting methods for soybeans are drilling and planting in rows using conventional planters. Drills tend to plant seeds closer together and in narrower rows than conventional planters and are thus associated with higher seeding rates. Over time, a higher share of U.S. soybean acres has been planted using conventional planters than drilling. In addition, seed technologies have changed over time; for instance, the planting of genetically engineered (GE) seed became more common during this period. Finally, the cost of seed on a per acre basis has increased, creating incentives for farmers to plant fewer seeds. Researchers in a 2023 USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) study found that as soybean production practices changed, yields also rose. From 2002 to 2018, U.S. soybean yields increased by 30 percent. This chart first appeared in the ERS Oil Crops Outlook: May 2024.

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