Don’t let dry weather scare you off soybeans

Growers told the long-term outlook for the crop is still positive

Three straight dry summers shouldn’t dissuade Manitoba producers from growing soybeans, despite a sharp drop in acreage during that time, an industry official says.

The long-term outlook for soybeans in Manitoba is still positive, even though the province’s seeded acreage in 2020 was less than half the peak reached three years ago, said Bryce Rampton, a Syngenta Canada seed agronomist.

“I can’t predict the acres (any more than) anybody else. But I would anticipate that the decline has probably slowed or stopped, depending on what we’re going to see next year,” Rampton said in a phone interview. “I think we have a lot more growers seeing soybeans in a positive light for 2021 and beyond.”

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Rampton made his comments following a webinar presentation in which he acknowledged a recent three-year dry spell has Manitoba soybean growers wondering if they should continue with the crop.

His presentation was part of a recent virtual online media summit held by Syngenta Canada.

In his presentation, Rampton acknowledged that “the driest three-year period that we’ve seen in, realistically, the past 100 years” is giving producers pause about continuing with the crop.

“So I think this has led to a lot of growers saying, I really like soybeans in the rotation. It’s another high-value crop I can grow. It’s breaking up my disease cycles from other crops and spreading out my harvest, my in-season management. It’s giving me new marketing opportunities. I just don’t know, based on these past three years, if I can get enough rainfall in the long run to successfully grow soybeans on my farm,” he said.

Rampton made his remarks against the backdrop of a significant decline in Manitoba’s soybean acreage since 2017. That year, according to the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation, the province’s insured commercial soybean acreage hit a record 2,150,632 acres. It has fallen steadily ever since, reaching 1,025,788 acres in 2020, less than half of 2017’s total and the lowest since 2013.

While market prices were one reason for the drop, the biggest one was weather, especially the current dry spell across much of Western Canada, according to analysts.

Soybeans are a fairly forgiving crop which can withstand both some drought and some wet conditions, provided it gets enough rain in early August to promote pod development, seed size and yield. Without timely precipitation, a potential 40-bushel-an-acre crop can end up as a 20-bushel crop or less.

As a result, Rampton said Syngenta has “spent a lot of time looking at all the environments that we see across the three (Prairie) provinces and trying to understand all the fundamental factors that we know go into growing a crop.”

Those include soil type, seasonal or periodic accumulations of rain throughout the growing season, heat units and spring or fall frost, he said.

Rampton encouraged growers to take the long view about seasonal precipitation and not to be put off by the current dry spell.

He said three dry years in a row is “kind of an anomaly in the long run” and weather data over the last 80 to 100 years shows it’s not something that happens very often.

“There are some environments where we’re going to see drought cycles fairly frequently over time where it probably isn’t the best option to have soybeans in your rotation. But when you look at some of the data, especially in Manitoba, the conditions based on our climatic average over a long period of time… they shape up really well.”

Despite dry weather this year, Rampton said Manitoba soybeans did surprisingly well overall. Results varied widely but average yields ranged from 30 bushels an acre to the mid-40s and sometimes even more, especially in the Red River Valley.

Copious soil moisture this spring resulting from an unusually wet fall last year gave crops a jump-start which helped them cope with dry weather later on.

Overall, 2020 looks like an average year for soybeans in Manitoba, Rampton said.

To offset dry conditions during the growing season, Rampton suggested growers use earlier-maturing varieties and seed them earlier in May, weather and soil temperature permitting.

“If soybeans germinate earlier, they can take advantage of early soil moisture, which enables them to handle a bit of stress and tends to promote earlier flowering and pod development.”

He acknowledged seeding earlier can run the risk of root diseases but said it’s a balancing act.

“Based on the conditions that we see with weather over long periods of time, it should balance out,” he said.

“There’s never one strategy that works in every year. But if you’re waiting until May 30 or the first week of June to plant soybeans, you’re missing an opportunity to drive a higher yield potential.”

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