If the trendline continues soybean acres in Manitoba could easily top three million acres in just five more years — but don’t necessarily bet the farm on it.
That’s the message Manitoba Agriculture pulse crops specialist Dennis Lange brought to the recent Manitoba Agronomists’ Conference on Dec. 14 at the University of Manitoba.
He foresees the potential for greater competition from other crops and the reality of growing soybeans in areas on the frontier for the crop as possible factors tempering the runaway growth of recent years.
“We are going to be looking at competition from other crops because we only have 9-1/2 million acres of cropland in Manitoba, so those acres have to come from somewhere,” Lange said.
“To get another million acres we are going to have to see another big shift in these crops as well.
“Are we going to have tighter rotations if we have two million acres of soybeans? What about volunteer control of such things as (Roundup Ready) canola? That’s always an issue with growers.”
Spring wheat and canola acres vary every year, but not a lot. And smaller-acreage crops don’t have many acres to lose, Lange noted.
Red spring acres have been stable and feed wheat and Prairie spring wheat acres, which are relatively small, have jumped in recent years. But soybeans have likely taken acres from winter wheat, which dropped 75 per cent to 134,000 acres in 2016 compared to 2012.
Some canola acres may have also gone to soybeans. In 2014 and 2015 canola acres fell below two million, but gained back ground in 2016, coming in at 3.2 million.
Soybeans are a long-season, heat-loving crop and Manitoba hasn’t had an early killing fall frost for at least six years, Lange said, something that has encouraged growers to take on the risk, but eventually it will catch up to them. He showed the meeting a photo of a green soybean field, taken Sept. 23, 2013 near Roblin, to illustrate his point.
“Some years, you’re going to have a frost then,” he said. “That concerns me when you have soybeans that green at that stage. Growers were picking the right varieties, but it was very cool during the growing season and they had some good rainfall and that kept things a little greener longer.
“That may slow progression down to some degree to hit that three million acres if we do get an early killing frost.”
In 2004 a frost in August resulted in a province-wide average soybean yield of eight bushels an acre. In 2005 soybean acres fell 41 per cent to just under 96,000.
Lange thinks 2.7 million acres is more likely to be the longer-term average for Manitoba soybeans.
That in itself would be remarkable. But three million acres, which would require an 82 per cent increase from 2016’s 1.65 million acres, fits the pattern of this runaway crop. Soybean plantings have increased every year for the last 10, including a 90 per cent jump in the last five years, based on Manitoba crop insurance data.
If soybeans hit three million acres it’s likely to be the province’s biggest-acreage crop overtaking canola and Canada Western Red Spring wheat, which came in at 3.2 million and 2.2 million acres, respectively in 2016.
For several years running canola, red spring wheat and soybeans have been the top three Manitoba crops in that order.
This coming year Manitoba farmers could plant a record two million acres of soybeans — an increase of 350,000 acres or 21 per cent following a record average provincial yield, estimated in late December at 42 bushels an acre.
The 2016 record exceeds the old one of 39 bushels set in 2013, and repeated in 2015, by eight per cent.
High yields in combination with relatively good prices and soybeans’ reputation for handling stress, including excess moisture, continue to make it an attractive crop.
Glyphosate-resistant varieties make weed control easy in most cases, although farmers need to be wary of herbicide-resistant weeds, Lange said in an interview last month.
Earlier-maturing varieties have also helped soybeans expand west and north, he said.
There were 78,000 acres of pedigreed soybeans planted in 2016 producing enough seed for three million acres, Lange said.
If Manitobans plant two million acres of soybeans in 2017, the acreage over the next five years will only have to increase an average of 200,000 a year before reaching three million. The previous five-year annual average increase was 218,000 acres. All farmers have to do is stay on the same trend to reach three million acres by 2022.
Soybeans started off in the Red River Valley. In 2011, 95 per cent of Manitoba’s 550,000 acres of soybeans were grown there.
In 2015, 61 per cent of Manitoba’s 1.33 million acres of soybeans were grown in the ‘traditional’ area and 39 per cent in the rest of agro-Manitoba.