A Malaysian soybean buyer, speaking at the Canadian Global Crops Symposium here March 27, had a strongly worded warning for Manitoba farmers about the low protein level of their 2017 crop.
“This is very important, and you guys realize this because you can grow more (soy)beans, but if nobody wants them then what? So please, try to make sure when you grow those beans in Manitoba you grow a high-protein type like in Ontario, not whatever comes from some seed guy…” Neoh Soon Bin, managing director of Soon Soon Group, told the conference attended by grain industry officials from Canada and abroad.
Low protein has prompted at least one Manitoba buyer to discount soybeans that contain less than 33 per cent protein.
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According to Soon Bin, whose company owns oilseed-crushing plants and flour mills, Manitoba soybeans are averaging 33.5 per cent protein, which translates into 43.1 per cent in dehulled meal — well below the required minimum of 46 per cent.
“If you have a soybean that doesn’t quite make it to 46 (per cent), essentially you can’t buy that meal unless you mix it with much higher protein (meal), but of course that is very expensive,” Soon Bin told the symposium.
Other Asian soybean crushers, including some in China have complained about Manitoba’s low-protein soybeans this year, he said later in an interview.
“I think this is giving Canadians a bad reputation,” Soon Bin said. “It is better to address that issue right now rather than five years down the road and people will be discounting all Canadian (soy)beans.”
Manitoba’s shorter growing period might be a factor, he said, and the variety choices that leads to.
“You need to select beans that have high protein in the first place.”
Potential protein content is much the same in all soybean varieties suited for Manitoba, Manitoba Agriculture pulse specialist Dennis Lange said in an interview March 29.
Manitoba protein is typically lower than soybeans from Ontario or the midwestern United States, but in 2017 Manitoba levels were even lower than normal. However, protein was down in Ontario and U.S. soybeans too, but still high enough for dehulled meal to meet the 46 per cent minimum, Soon Bin said.
Despite the pall cast by Soon Bin’s aspersions, Manitoba soybean growers needn’t be overly worried about future marketability and demand, Canadian soybean industry officials say.
“I don’t think growers will be spooked,” Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers executive director Francois Labelle said in an interview March 29.
Low protein is already on the industry’s radar, Labelle said.
And it’s not just a Manitoba phenomenon. Protein is dropping throughout North America, he said. One theory is breeders have focused on increasing yields, which corresponds directly to farmer profits, Labelle said.
The U.S. grain companies can blend soybeans from many growing areas to bring up protein levels — something that’s less practical in a smaller area such as Manitoba, he said
Several industry officials, including Lange, believe dry weather resulted in lower yields and protein content in some Manitoba soybeans last year.
But soybean protein was down, on average, across North America, even though it wasn’t dry everywhere. Lange believes soybeans from dry areas brought the average down.
Soybeans tend to build yield and protein later in the growing season. If the crop’s nitrogen-fixing nodules stop working because it’s too dry that can hurt protein and yield, he said.
Labelle agrees with Lange that there are no quick fixes.
“Soybean protein is complex and involves multiple genes,” Labelle said.
While some farmers say Viterra is discounting the price of low-protein soybeans, Labelle said it’s widely believed most Manitoba buyers have had discounts built into their soybean basis for years to reflect the protein gap compared to other areas.
According to Soon Bin’s calculations this year Manitoba and Ontario soybeans are worth $45 a tonne less than U.S. soybeans.
“So if you offered me Ontario soybeans at $45 a tonne cheaper I may even refuse to buy it because it doesn’t have the value…” he said. “If it doesn’t have protein and it doesn’t have the oil there’s no value to me.”
Manitoba farmers insured more than 2.2 million acres of soybeans in 2017, making it the third most grown annual crop in the province behind canola and wheat.
Soybeans are popular for their returns and value in crop rotations.
Plantings are up in Saskatchewan for the same reasons and soybeans have been creeping into parts of Alberta too.
Carl Potts, executive of the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, says a dry and shorter growing season and genetics could all play a role in protein levels.
“We’re trying to understand what are the real drivers… because once we do that then we can understand the types of management things and genetic things that we could focus on to try to boost those levels,” Potts said on the symposium’s sidelines. “But it’s clear. We have to be supplying products that the customers want to buy and meet their specifications.
“We’re expecting that this is less of an issue with more normal rainfall or higher and moisture.
“So I’m not particularly concerned about the experience of one year, but we use that as an opportunity to learn and identify what we can improve on in order to meet end-use customer demands.”
Canadian soybean farmers may have to focus more on growing varieties that have higher protein content, Ron Davidson, Soy Canada’s executive director, said during a break in the symposium. If there’s a price signal for protein, farmers will respond, he added,
“Farmers have simply been growing for yield,” Davidson said.
But since soybean meal is mainly fed to livestock, protein is critical.
Despite lower protein content in 2017, Davidson doesn’t expect it to hurt Canadian soybean production, including in the West.
“Quite the contrary,” he said. “We were expecting to have a reduction in acres but I’m not sure that’s going to happen. Certainly there is a strong demand to extend soybean production out into new areas… Farmers are looking for additional profitable crops to put into their rotations.
“The (Soy Canada) objective of doubling production, for a second time, in the next 10 years, is very doable.”