Speaker at soybean meeting in Missouri

(Photo: United Soybean Board)

Extreme weather’s risk to soy mitigated by better breeding, water management

December 9, 2022 | Aaron Putze, APR

Imagine if you could control the weather, like making it rain when it’s needed and stop when it’s not? Or ordering up some sun and warmth in April and May when wanting to plant (or golf!) and then dialing back the thermostat a degree or two in July and August? And wind? Let’s go with light and variable (especially in June when sprayers head to the fields).

OK, time to wake up.

While controlling the weather remains just a dream, managing it to the benefit of soybean production and profitability is reality.

Joshua Elliott combines climate and ag science to forecast agricultural development and opportunity. In comments to United Soybean Board directors gathered Dec. 6 in St. Charles, MO, the founder and CEO of Praedictus simplified the complex.

“I tell stories about a changing climate that you rarely hear,” said Elliott. “Put another way, I offer information that’s useful and applicable, rather than passing along trajectories and theories.”

While many talking heads peddle doomsday scenarios, Elliott is a self-described realist.

Not all changes in the weather and climate are created equal, he says. In fact, many regions and commodities stand to benefit from moderating temperatures, including soybeans.

United Soybean Board Meeting Presentation

“There will be winners and losers as there always are with weather and agriculture,” said Elliott. “But soybeans can realize a significant comparative advantage in the next few decades compared to other crops, especially if we improve plant breeding and water management.”

Global greenhouse gas (GHG) emission increases have moderated the past two years due to Covid lockdowns, Elliott said. Because GHG trap energy (much of which is stored in the ocean), 80% of the climate we’ll experience through 2050 is already baked in, he said.

Soybean yields, he predicts, will continue to trend higher through 2050.

“CO2 effects on a crop that fixes its own nitrogen are helpful so the soybean stands to benefit. It receives maximum growth benefits compared to corn and wheat.”

With improved water management and efficiency by crops, most negative impacts perpetuated by warming temperatures can also be mitigated.

North Dakota and Minnesota soybean farmers stand to benefit most as temperatures moderate northward.

Rainfall amounts will remain variable while water demand will increase nearly everywhere, says Elliott.

“Even if you do get more rain, it will come too early in the season or be too much at one time to be beneficial. A premium will be placed on improved water retention and management.”

Extreme, large scale weather events will increase in frequency over the next 25 years. The number of two-day extreme precipitation events are already on the rise.

“We’re receiving more rainfall but primarily in the spring and courtesy of extreme weather events,” said Elliott. “This is impacting the timely planting and harvesting of crops and impact yields.”

He also predicts the prevalence of extreme and long-lasting temperature swings, including heat waves. This is expected to increase over the coming decades, particularly in the southern U.S.

Farms currently irrigating will need more water or better water management as crops demand more due to increased evaporation and transpiration. Elliott said modeling pegs the increase at 15% to maintain baseline yields.

“Water availability will be at a premium the next 25 years,” he added. “With irrigation, you cancel out negative impacts and turn the elevated temperatures into a benefit.

“The question: can improvements in plant breeding and water management keep pace?”