Chris Gaesser leans on his truck in a soybean field.

Chris Gaesser notes that his soybeans were in line with the Iowa average for the survey, showing lower protein and higher oil. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

Diving into soybean quality

February 15, 2021 | Bethany Baratta

Soybeans contain protein and soybean oil. But the percentage of each component varies year to year depending on the geographical area in which the soybeans are grown and the weather during the growing season. 

A survey conducted by the University of Minnesota seeks to analyze the quality of the U.S. soybean crop. It’s one tool used to show the rest of the world how the U.S. fares annually regarding protein, oil and amino acid concentrations. 

Seth Naeve, associate professor and extension agronomist at the University of Minnesota, leads the efforts, sending paperwork and collection bags to selected U.S. soybean growers. 

The 2020 soybean quality survey largely reflected the effects of the weather in the Midwest – too much moisture, not enough moisture and everything in between. 

2020 results 

Many of the 1,285 respondents to the survey noted their 2020 growing season began too wet and turned too dry during seed-fill stages. 

“When excessive rainfall early is coupled with drought conditions late in the season, significant reductions in protein content are often noted,” Naeve says. “These conditions were widespread in 2020 and likely resulted in a large portion of the protein-to-oil shift.” 

Naeve says protein and oil contents have an inverse relationship. When one value goes higher, the other goes lower. The results of the 2020 survey showed just that: lower protein content and higher soy oil concentration. 

The average protein content in the 2020 soybean crop was 33.2%, down 0.9 percentage point from the 2019 survey average and down 1.1 points compared to the prior 10-year average. 

Meanwhile, the average oil content for the 2020 soybean crop was 20.5%, up 1.5% from the 2019 crop. This was also up 1.6% compared with the prior 10-year average. 

“Both protein and oil smashed all-time record values based on survey data going back 34 years,” Naeve says. 

Average protein was nearly one percentage point lower than the previous low of 34.1% (found in 2008, 2017, 2018 and 2019). However, oil was nearly one percentage point higher than the previous record high of 19.8% set in 2015. 

From the 206 samples sent from farmers in Iowa, the Iowa soybean crop averaged 32.8% protein, down from 33.5% in 2019. Oil content was 20.8%, up from 19.2% in 2019. 

All survey respondents receive a postcard after the results are finalized showing how their sample stacks up with others in their growing region and the U.S. 

Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) farmer-member Chris Gaesser’s sample was in line with the Iowa average, showing lower protein and higher oil content than his 2019 crop. He’s participated in the survey the past five years. 

“I’m very pro-research in general, but I’m also interested in learning how our soybeans vary year to year based upon the variability in growing conditions,” says Gaesser, who farms near Corning.

The survey results are fascinating but don’t impact his planting decisions, he says. 

“Until there’s some incentive to grow a specific quality or select for it, there aren’t a lot of reasons to change what we’re growing,” Gaesser says. 

Survey history 

The American Soybean Association, United Soybean Board and U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC) has supported the survey of the quality of the U.S. soybean crop since 1986. It’s intended to provide insight into off-the-farm new crop quality data to aid international customers with their purchasing decisions. 

“It started as a way to give our global customers, particularly those in Japan, a snapshot of what they might be expecting to receive for the upcoming year,” says Paul Burke, senior director of U.S. Soy marketing for USSEC. 

The information has been valuable to customers in Japan, where the U.S. has a 65% market share, according to USSEC. 

Dare to compare 

While customers look to Naeve’s survey as one of the first impressions of the quality of the U.S. soybean crop, he says there are other measures of soybean value and quality, which also help international buyers make their purchasing decisions. 

USSEC conducted a survey of soybeans being loaded onto vessels for export, while also conducting the annual off-farm quality survey. The on-vessel loading survey showed that U.S. soybeans averaged 34.24% protein and 19.34% oil. 

The USSEC Dare to Compare global digital marketing campaign takes Naeve’s survey one step further in providing information to soybean buyers. 

One component of the campaign shows the value of U.S. soy’s nutritional profile. 

A new meta-analysis quantifying the relationship between country of origin and the chemical composition, protein quality and nutritive value of soybean meal demonstrates the U.S. soy advantage over Argentina, Brazil and India. It reaffirms the importance of considering country of origin when making purchasing decisions and formulating feed rations for swine and poultry diets. 

The Nutrient Value Calculator built by Genesis Feed Technologies builds on nutritional data to help traders and buyers better analyze the economic value of soybean meal in global markets. 

Feed millers should have great interest in this calculator as it factors in price, protein and other attributes like amino acids and energy. It’s a real-time comparison between various soy suppliers, Burke says. The calculator indicates that U.S. soybean meal could be a leading contributor to cost reduction in broiler diets. 

When comparing cost reductions with incorporation of data from the meta-analytical study, premiums that can be earned by using U.S. soybean meal in feed production range from $14.57 to $23.24 per metric ton over Argentine soybean meal and $2.48 to $10.26 per metric ton over Brazilian soybean meal, according to USSEC. 

“U.S. soy and soybean meal products offer a price advantage and rank first on a number of important nutritional attributes when compared to other origins, including remarkable amino acid and energy profiles,” Burke says. 

With higher sucrose levels, a well-balanced amino-acid profile, higher digestibility, increased metabolizable energy and lower fiber content, protein quality traits are better for U.S. soybean meal than from other origins. Learn more about the Dare to Compare campaign at

This story was originally published in the February 2021 issue of the Iowa Soybean Review.