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Prairie soybeans settle back

Three years of dry Augusts might make for good cereal harvesting weather, but leave soybeans struggling for pod fill

After a stratospheric climb early in the last decade, Prairie soybean acreage has been on a downturn for the past three years. Manitoba acreage rose from 520,000 in 2010 to almost 2.3 million in 2017, but fell every year since to 1.15 million this past spring. Saskatchewan followed a similar pattern, reaching 850,000 acres in 2017 but dropping to 126,700 this year.

Yield statistics suggest the reason for the drop. After topping out at 41 bushels in 2016, Manitoba yields dropped every year after to 29.2 bushels last year.

“Western Canadian soybean acres decreased over the last three years and the biggest factor is yield,” says David Kikkert, corn and soybean lead for Bayer CropScience. “We’ve had three dry years for soybeans, specifically during their pod development and pod fill, so they have been missing those timely rains in August and September to get yields, which are now below 30 bushels an acre as an average. That doesn’t lead to a very positive return on investment for growers.”

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Manitoba Agriculture pulse specialist Dennis Lange cites similar reasons.

“(Dry conditions and lower soybean prices) would be the two main reasons soybean acres are down. Growers have also seen better yields in some of the other crops they are growing, such as peas, canola and cereals.”

With the added price uncertainty from the COVID-19 pandemic, soybeans are harder to pencil in and this may deter potential new growers, even though soybeans are an easier crop to get into compared to others such as corn, which needs a much higher investment for specialized equipment such as planters and headers.

“If you have the conditions and have the equipment that would be used to grow field peas or lentils, you can grow soybeans,” says Jeff Loessin, soybean lead for Western Canada at Corteva Agriscience. “But, the ability for a farmer to jump out of soybean is a lot easier too, because you haven’t made special investments that would probably keep corn in your rotation even if you’re not so excited about the returns for any one year. I think that’s why we’ve seen farmers jump out of soybean the way that we have over the last couple of years.”

Variety development continues

Kikkert notes there’s still interest in soybeans as a rotation option. “Soybean is self-nitrogen fixing and the seasonality helps break up the work a little bit with timing with the crop, so those benefits are always still there.”

Plus, companies continue to work on new varieties for Western Canada, with a focus on shorter-season genetics with good yield potential, as well as resistance to diseases such as phytophthora root and stem rot, iron chlorosis, and less common pests and diseases such as soybean cyst nematode and white mould.

“Maturity is very important and tends to be more of an issue in Western Canada,” says Eric Shaw, soybean research scientist, for Corteva Agriscience. “Here, the environment can be unpredictable and an early frost or snowfall is not uncommon. We make sure to develop a wide range of maturities so that western Canadian growers can select the right mix of maturity and traits that best fits their needs and region.”

In addition to the many double- and triple-zero (shortest maturity) varieties already on the market, there will soon be more options for triple-zero varieties to help make soybean production viable in more non-traditional growing regions of Western Canada.

“That starts to push the suitability of varieties up even into the black soil zone in northeast and northwest Saskatchewan, where the moisture levels can be a little more consistent than if you were trying to grow it in the brown or the dark brown soil zones, which tend to get drier weather,” Loessin says.

Educating growers

Soybeans are still a relatively new crop in Western Canada so seed companies and their retailers and representatives continue to provide information and help educate growers about soybean agronomy, sharing up-to-date local data from ongoing trials and test plots in the region.

“We’re doing a fair bit of education to get out specific variety information, so when growers are choosing varieties, they can choose the right one that fits their farm or their field the best, so they can have the best success,” Kikkert says.

There are already some new herbicide options for soybean growers in the West, such as Bayer CropScience’s Roundup Ready Xtend CropSystem which offers tolerance to both glyphosate and dicamba, and more coming such as the Enlist E3 soybean from several seed brands, including Corteva Agriscience. The Enlist weed control system combines new traits and herbicides, with 2,4-D choline and glyphosate resistance.

“The breeding investment going into soybean will continue to lead to advancements in how the varieties perform and the adaptability of those varieties to Western Canada and should lead to an overall increase in acreage long-term,” Loessin says. “If we get a couple of years where the returns are positive relative to crops like canola, or some of the disease issues reappear that were challenging spring wheat and canola in a couple of the wetter years, soybean acres could jump back up fast in those types of conditions, so the fundamentals are still there to be positive for soybeans.”

This article was originally published in the October 2020 issue of the Soybean Guide.

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Angela Lovell

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