Can Soybeans Compete?

November 28, 2012 04:30 PM
Can Soybeans Compete?

Experts say 100 bu. per acre soybean yields are possible

Soybeans are a wonder crop, with a wide variety of uses from livestock feed to tofu. For farmers in the heartland, beans are the perfect companion to corn in a rotation. Yet the future of soybeans is in doubt as the profit and yield spreads between the two crops increase.

The University of Illinois’ budgets project a gap between corn and soybean profits for 2013. Estimates show corn returns of $650 per acre, nearly $250 more than soybean returns of $400 per acre.

Farmers are following the money. Even though soybean acreage was up 1% in 2012, breaking a trend of declines, corn was up more, at 5%.

"The last 10 years was the decade for corn, with many new traits," says Tony White, soybean product development manager for Monsanto Company. "We think the next decade will be the decade of the soybean."

Training Program. "There are exciting breeding and biotech traits in Monsanto’s soybean pipeline," White says, "such as Asian Rust resistance, phytophthora root rot resistance and dicamba-tolerant trait products"—all pending regulatory approval, of course. He believes that with a systems approach—including seed treatments, genetic advances, foliar fungicides and insecticides, and increased management—bean yields can double by 2030.

High soybean yield and profit potential might already be here. "Soybeans don’t have a genetics problem, they have a management problem," says James Orf, a geneticist and plant breeder at the University of Minnesota. He notes that "Soybean King" Kip Cullers of Missouri has already achieved bean yields above 160 bu. per acre, which beats the 2011 average corn yield of 147 bu. However, the national average was only 43 bu. "Farmers look at soybeans as being less profitable, so they use fewer inputs," Orf says.

Jim Trybom, a DuPont Pioneer research scientist, says early planting, combined with seed treatments and better weed control, can result in higher yields. He adds that foliar fungicide and nitrogen applications might improve yields.

Soybeans have biological challenges that are not easy for breeders to overcome. The oilseed has a more limited germplasm than corn, and it’s easier to boost yields in corn than in soybeans, says Glenn Bowers, head of global soybean breeding for Syngenta. That’s because corn is mostly carbohydrates, while soybeans produce protein, fats and oils, which require more energy.

Progress is being made with soybean yields through the use of genetic markers and other ways of boosting traits, so Bowers anticipates far higher yields in the future. He believes that the genetics are there today for producers to consistently obtain 80 bu. to 90 bu. per acre, which is highly profitable. Looking ahead, he asks: "Are 100-bu. average yields realistic and possible? I think so."

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