It’s a bold prediction that Burnett admits is intentionally provocative. But he also says it isn’t all that far fetched, unless between then and now there’s an early killing frost or the economics of production change. Those would temper enthusiasm for the crop that’s already the third largest in the province behind canola and wheat.
“It’s close already,” Burnett said in an interview after addressing the Fields on Wheels conference Oct. 22 in Winnipeg.
This year a record 1.06 million acres of soybeans were insured in Manitoba, compared to 3.26 million acres of canola and 2.8 million for all types of wheat.
“Just a one-million-acre switch (between canola and soybeans) and you’d be there,” Burnett said.
The possibility that in Manitoba soybeans could overtake the made-in-Canada Cinderella crop doesn’t surprise Niverville farmer Grant Dyck. He planted almost half of his 13,000-acre farm to soybeans this year and reaped excellent yields, he said after speaking at Fields on Wheels. He also harvested a bumper canola crop.
“But it took six years to break 40 (bushels an acre),” Dyck said. “I think it (canola) is just too subject to distress.”
Burnett, who admits to having a “soft spot” for soybeans, which he worked on as a University of Manitoba master’s student in 1984, says soybeans are hardier than canola.
“They don’t mind the wetness and they seem to be able to handle the dry spells… quite well,” he said during his formal remarks to the conference.
“There’s a buck a bushel premium in the marketplace (over canola), plus less cost — that equals more soybean acres.”
But the soybean’s biggest advantage is reduced fertilizer costs because it makes its own nitrogen. And that’s an edge soybeans will have on canola until canola can fix its own nitrogen, Burnett said.
Soybeans could prove to be more attractive as the climate changes too. Soybeans are a heat-loving crop and the Earth is getting warmer, mainly because of rising levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, University of Manitoba geography professor, Danny Blair told the meeting. As the climate warms the weather becomes more volatile.
Soybeans seem to have fewer pests than canola, but Burnett said that’s likely to change as more acres are seeded.
Supply and demand determines crop prices. Oilseed crops such as canola and soybeans continue to be in high demand with China being a big buyer of both.
Rise to prominence
The soybean’s rise to prominence in Manitoba is remarkable, given that Burnett and others who experimented with it in the 1980s had limited success. Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation records show 118 farmers insured 10,932 acres of soybeans in 1998. The average yield was 30.1 bushels an acre.
Fast-forward 15 years to a record 1.06 million acres of soybeans, up 29 per cent from the year previous, which was the previous record year.
Manitoba’s long-term average soybean yield is not much lower than canola’s 34.6 bushels an acre. But averages can be misleading. In wetter areas, such as the RM of Brokenhead northwest of Winnipeg, the five-year average soybean yield is 27.1 versus 24.7 for canola.
In 2011, soybeans accounted for almost 30,000 acres in Brokenhead making it the No. 1 crop followed by canola and wheat at 16,312 and 15,282 acres.
Taking into account the need to rotate crops to deter pests, ultimately what farmers grow boils down to profitability. Yield times price minus costs equals profit.
Soybeans yields and prices have been competitive with canola, but in 2012 soybeans cost 24 per cent less to grow, according to Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives’ cost-of-production estimate. It put soybeans’ variable costs at $176.45 an acre compared to $231.80 for canola. The biggest difference is fertilizer costs — just $11 an acre for soybeans versus $83 for canola.
While soybeans will continue to move west, Burnett expects canola acres will continue to dominate. Other agronomists agree, saying drier growing conditions and fewer heat units favour canola. But 20 years ago how many people predicted there would be 1.06 million acres of soybeans seeded in Manitoba?