Soybeans still picking up acres

At one time the edible bean workshops would have been the hot ticket at the Manitoba Special Crops Symposium and you’d be fighting for a chair.

This year there were just a few scattered groups of growers listening to presentations on everything from harvest methods to seeding techniques and there were likely more empty chairs than attendees.

The day before however, it was standing room only for similar presentations on soybean production.

“It just goes to show how these things can change over just a few years, and who knows when that pendulum will swing back?” observed consultant Brent VanKoughnet, who presented both days.

MAFRI pulse crops specialist Dennis Lange echoed that observation a little later when he took the stage to deliver his dry bean production update. Lange, a well-known figure in the province’s pulse industry, worked widely in the edible bean business in the private trade before joining MAFRI. These days he spends a lot of time working on soybean issues.

“As you can see, I’ve dressed appropriately,” Lange joked with the audience, referring to a more subdued version of his trademark Hawaiian shirt. “This shirt actually has a fair bit of black in it, so I guess I’m in mourning.”

It’s not that soybeans are anything new to the province, it’s just that lately they’ve been on a tear, while field bean acres have been on the wane. This year close to a million acres of soybeans are expected to be planted, while edible bean plantings are expected to continue a long, slow decline.

Michael Reimer, acting executive director of the Manitoba Pulse Growers Association, says when he’s talked to the association’s members about the trend, a number of key points highlight why growers have been making this decision.

First and perhaps foremost, there’s the wetter weather cycle the province has been stuck in for the past number of years. While canola can fare well in the heavy clay soils of the Red River Valley during drier years, they haven’t done as well when the ground’s been wetter, Reimer said.

“Soybeans have been much more reliable in these wetter conditions,” he said. “I think that may be the biggest reason we’ve seen this switch.”

In that case, it’s agronomics causing the crop to steal acres from canola, he says. At the same time there’s a clear economic trend causing it to capture other acres too. Dry beans were for a number of years seen as a winning crop for growers, especially in the Red River Valley. At a time when even canola could be challenging to pencil out some seasons, they returned more dollars to growers. But the resurgence in commodity crop prices have put some pressure on this trend, Reimer said.

“There are some acres going into soybeans that would have been growing edible beans a few years ago,” Reimer said.

That’s because relatively speaking, dry beans are a finicky crop to grow that require a higher level of care and management than the tougher commodity crop soybeans. They’re also headed towards entirely different markets with different quality specifications. Dry bean buyers, for example, don’t want split seed coats, whereas a soybean crusher has far fewer concerns about cosmetic appearances.

In the end growers will continue making their planting decisions while balancing agronomic and economic considerations just like they always have, Reimer said. Which crops win will vary over time as factors outside the control of farmers, such as weather and markets, change with time.

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Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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