Soybeans poised to beat out wheat, barley

Planting estimates for soybeans are running around two million acres for the coming season

It’ll take quite a lot to convince Manitoba farmers to hold off on expanding soybean acres in favour of growing more wheat and barley for milling and malt channels.

Farmers packed a hall at the 2017 CropConnect conference to hear a soybean presentation, and there’s no doubt provincial growers are more gung-ho than ever to plant more soybeans.

Based on what he’s heard at industry and grower meetings, Dennis Lange predicts up to two million acres of soybeans could be planted in Manitoba this spring.

“There’s definitely lots of interest there,” said the Manitoba Agriculture pulse specialist. “Yields have been good, prices have been good, and just simplified weed control makes the crop a little easier to grow.”

Soybean area of two million would mean an additional 350,000 acres over last year, which “is definitely doable,” Lange said.

“This past year we had just over 1.6 million acres seeded, and harvested were somewhere in that 1.5 million range,” he said, adding 2016 provincial average yields reached a record-breaking 42 bushels per acre.

Soybeans have taken away acreage from canola, flax and cereals, says G3 Canada weather and crop specialist Bruce Burnett. He agrees the main reasons behind soybean expansion are a combination of economics and agronomy.

“Prices have generally been at a premium to canola over the past few years, and yields are approaching those of canola in many regions,” he said. “Relatively low input costs combined with recent favourable yields make them a very attractive cropping option.”

And so far buyers can easily absorb the added potential output.

“The thing about soybeans on the Prairies is that we remain a drop in the bucket,” says Jonathon Driedger, senior market analyst with FarmLink Marketing Solutions. “Our increase in production doesn’t really move the needle very much in the bigger picture.”

photo: Dennis Lange, Manitoba Agriculture

Farmers also have their pick of buyers, large and small, unlike the early 2000s when there were only a couple of buyers to choose from. A complete list for Manitoba soybean buyers can be found on the Manitoba Pulse & Soybeans Growers’ website.

Wheat and barley

Challenging 2016 growing and harvest weather conditions resulted in wheat quality deterioration – with fusarium one of the biggest downgrading factors – and significantly reduced available supplies of top grades.

Wheat in the rest of the world didn’t fare well either.

“A much higher percentage than normal of the world’s wheat crop is feed quality,” The Money Farm’s Mike Krueger told CropConnect. “We’ve got this big mass of low-protein, relatively poor milling-quality wheat sitting in piles and in commercial storage in the southern Plains that is never going to go into milling channels. And I think it’s going to be difficult to find its way into export channels; it’s going to have to go into feed.”

Surprisingly, however, Canadian barley survived a difficult season well.

The Canadian Grain Commission reports the quality of western Canadian malting barley was actually good in 2016, with lower protein and plumper kernels than average.

But a need for high-quality wheat and a good barley performance aren’t likely to be enough to convince farmers here to plant more.

“Cereals are suffering from two issues: one is economics; and the other is disease,” said Burnett.

The threat of fusarium looms over both malting barley and milling wheat production in Manitoba every year, he points out.

“The economics of wheat and other cereals is not as favourable. We will still grow a substantial acreage for rotation considerations, but unless prices improve, farmers are not going to be attracted to the crops by the margins they provide,” Burnett said.

Driedger adds pursuing malt barley or milling wheat needs to be weighed against the risk if that quality isn’t achieved. He also points out the Prairies only require about two million tonnes of good-quality barley to meet domestic and export demand.

“I’d say that growers need to consider all options when making their decisions,” Driedger said. “We could see quality premiums for barley and wheat widen, especially if we have another quality challenge on the Prairies overall, but the risks need to be weighed against the opportunity.”

Soybean risks

As a long-season crop, soybeans can be particularly vulnerable to autumn frosts.

“You’re planting it in May and you’re harvesting in mid- to late September,” Lange said. “That doesn’t change very often. You don’t harvest your beans in August; you harvest your beans in September and sometimes into October. So weather can be a big factor.”

Farmers need to choose their soybean variety carefully, picking the one that’s best suited to their growing region as there are differences in maturity.

Growers have been fortunate not to have been hit by a September killing frost in six years, Lange notes. Conditions worked out well this year with plenty of heat units, as well as moisture – especially during that critical time in August – and no killing frost in September. But things haven’t always worked out so well.

A cool summer and August frost undermined producers’ efforts back in 2004.

“And when it was all said and done, our provincial average was eight bushels an acre,” Lange said.

Another bump along the way came in 2011, when a lot of regions experienced a very hot, dry August, and the provincial soybean yield average reached only 26 bu./ac. Dry conditions in August can be a very yield-limiting factor in soybeans.

“You never know what the weather patterns are going to be for the upcoming year, so you look at your land base and grow the crops that follow the rotation, but also spread your risk around,” Lange said.

He also warns against giving in to the temptation of cheating on rotations that’s so common with growing new crops.

“Once you start doing that, then what happens is you open yourself up to other issues, such as potential weed resistance. We’ve already had five confirmed cases of glyphosate-resistant kochia in Manitoba in five different RMs.”

With rotations in some areas getting on the tight side, growers also need to be aware of Phytophthora root rot, which has already appeared in fields.

“Going forward, things like Phytophthora root rot is going to be a concern.”

Pests so far have been less of an issue. There’ve been no major problems with wireworm or seed corn maggot, and there’ve been no confirmed cases of soybean cyst nematode. But the latter does exist just across the U.S. border.

“Growers still have to be vigilant about how often they grow their soybeans and making sure if they are bringing in equipment from other areas in the U.S. into Canada, make sure that that equipment has been cleaned before it crosses the border because of soybean cyst nematode potentially moving in soil particles.”

Fertility is another issue and Lange has seen a trend toward lower phosphate levels.

“Growers really have to design a fertility package for their entire farm, not just for soybeans, just to make sure that you’re able to maintain the recommended phosphate and potash levels in those soils for soybeans and other crops. It’s an overall plan.”

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