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If you evaluate U.S. soybeans for composition over the years, they probably get a passing grade. Protein and oil levels generally are adequate to meet customer needs. But if you evaluate the attention paid by farmers to composition, the grade is not as good. Industry watchers hope more focused attention to the issue might lead to better cash prices and more export business.
"We had no idea what the composition of our soybean crop was until we sent in samples to find out," said Laura Foell, who farms with her husband, Bill, near Schaller, Iowa. Foell also serves on the United Soybean Board (USB). "Farmers traditionally don't pay attention to protein and oil composition because there is no obvious economic incentive to do so like with yield."
Foell, however, changed her thinking following a recent visit to Taiwan. While meeting with crushers, she got a clearer understanding of the buyers' desire to purchase soybeans based on oil and protein content. "We have to select for more than yield to be competitive in the global marketplace," she said.
The Foells now test their soybeans for composition. Last year's crop had an average 35% protein and 20% oil, slightly higher than the national average.
The U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC) has annually tested soybeans from around the country since 1986. Their 2013 quality report shows U.S. soybean composition increased slightly from 2012. Average soybean protein concentration was 0.4 percentage points higher in 2013 at 34.7%. Average oil concentration was 0.5 percentage points higher at 19%.
Higher protein is especially good news for soybean values, since soybean meal represents the greatest makeup and use of the crop. However, USSEC survey coordinators say last year's increase in protein content doesn't likely reflect a trend. That's largely because weather and geography can vary protein and oil content annually and by region. The 1986-2013 U.S. average for protein was 35.2% and 18.7% for oil.
Seth Naeve, University of Minnesota Extension soybean agronomist, conducted the most recent survey. He said the shift in soybean production north and west, particularly to the Dakotas, has had some impact on composition. Soybeans in those states traditionally have lower protein content because of climate.
Yet, while soybean acres in these areas are increasing, a drop in overall protein content isn't reflected in the acre shift. "Protein content is not moving backwards," Naeve points out. "We may be increasing quality over time."
"As more production in the U.S. moves farther away from the equator, protein levels from current varieties decline," explains Chris Schroeder, director with Centrec Consulting Group, of Savoy, 1ll. "But that is not reason to throw in the towel. Soybean breeding programs traditionally focus on yield and other agronomic traits, with lower priority on protein and oil levels. If we can send signals to seed companies to put more emphasis on these attributes, it may be possible to increase the value of U.S. soybeans relative to our global competitors."
FOCUS ON AMINO ACIDS
Protein levels aren't the only things that sell soybeans. In fact, animal nutritionists anticipate crude protein content won't be the biggest decision maker for buyers in the future.
"Historically, assessments have been based on analysis for crude protein. It is a relatively simple measure," said Nick Bajjalieh, president of Integrative Nutrition, Inc., based in Decatur, Ill. "But nutritionists now are more focused on amino acid concentration.