USDA sent shock waves through the commodity markets June 30, claiming U.S. farmers planted 89.5 million acres of soybean this year. While the number was unchanged from its March forecast, it’s still up 7% from last year. Despite the trade expecting USDA to move soybean acreage higher in its June report, an aerial view of farm country has revealed a major shift taking over American farm fields.
“We're seeing substantially more beans than corn,” says Rex Williamson, a crop insurance agent in Payne, Ohio.
The surge in soybean acres visible across the country, including among Ohio fields. It's a shift supported by appealing prices and Mother Nature.
“We dropped about 20% of our corn acres and just went to beans because it hadn't got planted yet,” says Kent Eddy, Van Wert, Ohio farmer. “We got into early June and we just decided to forget it.”
While farmers are making history, others are watching it unfold, witnessing a new era being born.
“If we don't see more soybean acres than corn this year, we are definitely going to see it sometime in the near future,” says Elaine Kub, Author of “Mastering the Grain Markets.”
A historical view of Prospective Plantings reports reveals that if soybean acres finally tops corn, it would mark the first time in nearly 35 years. The only other time in history soybeans won out was in 1983. That was in the midst of the 1980s farm crisis when the U.S. government implemented the Payment-in-Kind (PIK) program, essentially paying farmers to let acres sit idle.
The last time soybean acres were this close to corn acres was 1983. (USDA, Christopher Walljasper/Farm Journal Media)
While today's economics are playing into soybean acres' favor, it's a shift that didn’t happen overnight.
“We see the growing area expanding, we see the volume expanding,” says John Motter, Ohio soybean farmer and chairman of the United Soybean Board (USB). “In the six or seven years I’ve been involved with USB, we've seen about a 30 percent growth in the volume of the U.S. crop.”
The surge in both volume and acres also being supported by exploding soybean yields. Robb Fraley is Monsanto Company's Chief Technology Officer. He's sometimes referred to as the father of biotechnology for his role in developing the first GMO crops in the 1980s. He says farmers are simply growing better beans today.
“For the first time I can tell you we're breeding soybeans with the same kind of intensity that we were breeding corn,” Fraley says. “I see farmers putting the same type of planting, disease control, agronomy practices into soybeans, so I think it's a combination of we're putting more research into it and farming beans and it's paying off.”
“I think we're seeing some significant increases, I mean just some of the yields soybean farmers had consistently across their fields, hearing reports of 70, 75 bushel yields across large parts of their farms were absolutely amazing,” according to Steve Censky, CEO of American Soybean Association (ASA). “I do think that's probably eh product of both better genetics and the evolution of plant breeding and molecular breeding that's taking place, biotech being able to resist weed pressure, as well as some of the other technologies about the seed treatments.”
Last fall, Farm Journal agronomist Ken Ferrie saw farmers consistently yield 80 to 90 bushels per acre in central Illinois fields, and he says it was the April planted beans often boasting such big yields.
Ag companies are putting research dollars behind developing new seed treatments, saying it's one way farmers can fight early season extremes.
“If we talk about how are we going to maximize yield on soybeans, one of the biggest things is plant early to maximize our yield potential,” says Mike Mccarville, seed growth tech services rep for Bayer. “When you talk about shifting to an April planting, we've seen up to a 20 bushel benefits from going that early with the planter.”
According to USDA, since 1993 the national average soybean yields has climbed by 20 bushels per acre, with the record reached last year, at 52.1 bushels per acre. As farmers get better at growing bigger beans, 100 bushel averages may be in a field near you sooner than many think.
“It's really close,” Fraley says. “I mean you know this year, we had our awards dinner and there were a lot of guys with 300 bushel corn and a lot of guys with 100 bushel beans.”
“I think we're going to continue to see those jumps, particularly as I think we're just on the cutting edge of bringing into place the yield data and field data to try to help us more prescription farm,” said Censky.
It's new technology and prescription farming that could break the yield ceiling, launching another surge for soybeans.