Farmers dissect soybean challenges, opportunities

October 31, 2022 | Bethany Baratta

At the Soybean Research Forum and Think Tank in Indianapolis in July, four farmers participated in a panel discussion about the challenges and opportunities in the soybean industry. Jeff Nalley, a 39-year radio and farm broadcasting veteran, moderated the panel.

Participants Included:

Heather Beaner

Retired Air Force attorney and farmer from Mellette, South Dakota. After active duty, Beaner moved back and took over the farm from her father. She farms with her husband and son and serves on the North Central Soybean Research Program (NCSRP) board and as a Regional Council Representative for Land O’ Lakes. Beaner also serves on the board of directors for her local ag coop, Agtegra, and is a director on the South Dakota Soybean Checkoff Board.

Steve Reinard

Farms 1,700 acres of soybeans, corn, wheat/barley and hay in Crawford County, Ohio. He serves as the treasurer on the United Soybean Board (USB) executive committee and previously as Ohio Soybean Council chairman.

Tom Griffiths

First-generation livestock and grain farmer from Indiana. He is a former Indiana Soybean Alliance chairman and was a representative to the U.S. Meat Export Federation, USA Poultry and Egg Export Council, and U.S. Soybean Export Council. He’s worked on trade promotions and exports for soybean and meat products in 22 countries. He serves as a USB director.

Gregg Fujan

A soybean and corn farmer near Weston, Nebraska, Fujan is a former USB director and former chairman of the Nebraska Soybean Board. He also led NCSRP as president.

NALLEY: Are there trends you think the industry should pay attention to from the producer’s perspective?

REINHARD: We have a lot of information, but they are in several formats. If we can find programs that marry the technologies faster, we can get a faster turnaround and make decisions quicker.

FUJAN: Identifying what genes control what part of the plant and the resistance factors to plan for has always excited me throughout my time working with research.

BEANER: Farmers must do a lot more in a narrower window of time. For three years, I’ve had three days to put a crop in. There’s a limited window to spray beans. I think it’s essential for researchers to know that if you’re asking us to apply a new product or make an extra pass, we often will not have the time. Farmers are doing so much more, so quickly in smaller windows, that I think it’s important for researchers to understand that we’re willing to pay someone else to do that for us because of these limited windows.

GRIFFITHS: I’m not a plant breeder, but we spend a lot of time on boards and in research programs on drought-tolerant soybeans. I’m not necessarily concerned with drought tolerant soybeans because, in northeast Indiana, soybeans never make it to the drought stage here. Instead, soybeans die in the cold, wet soil. This problem must be addressed.

NALLEY: Are there areas in this industry where you’re encouraged?

GRIFFITHS: Last year, the U.S. Soybean Board (USB) challenged us as directors to bring proposals for funding consideration instead of researchers bringing proposals to us. They asked us, as farmer-directors, what we wanted to fund.

REINHARD: From the soil health standpoint, we have spent a lot of money on microbiology because we feel it’s important. As we see high input prices this year, I’m interested in seeing how some of the bio-stimulants are working so we can potentially use less fertilizer. The bio market is kind of a wild west – there are a lot of products, but perhaps not a lot of research.

FUJAN: The successes in soybean oil speak for themselves. It went from being an albatross on the soy complex’s neck to taking the lead in biofuels, sustainable aviation fuel and renewable diesel.

BEANER: When farmer board members are given the task of spending money on behalf of other farmers, it’s a big responsibility. So, when researchers present their proposals, we ask, ‘How will this research project benefit most farmers in my region?” If a project covers a small area and might not achieve the biggest bang for the buck, it’s less likely to be funded in our boardroom. North Central Soybean Research Program (NCSRP) is a 13-state conglomerate. When we’re looking at research proposals, there must be a broad application for the areas we represent. And it must have an impact. If a proposal doesn’t have a way to improve my soybean farmers’ lives, it’s a harder sell going back to the farm gate.

NALLEY: What’s one opportunity that would add the most value to your farm?

GRIFFITHS: More bushels.

FUJAN: Traits. Some identity preserved opportunities will deliver more profit to farmers. In my area, high oleic has not taken off as strongly as in some areas, but I think traits could play a role in profitability moving forward.

BEANER: There are several components to adding opportunities and value. Making sure the information we discussed at this Forum gets back to farmers, our local seed salespeople and service producers back home is a start. Also, we can make a bean that would be ideal for fish food, for example, but from my point of view, we only have one bean we grow: a yellow, No. 2 bean. There isn’t a place for me to develop niche beans. We don’t grow high oleic soybeans, and there’s only one place in North Dakota you can sell non-GMO beans, and it’s an hour and a half to get there. Then, you have to store the niche beans in separate facilities. It’s a logistical infrastructure nightmare to consider anything other than the standard genetically modified seed where I’m located. I’m fascinated by the opportunities and research needs relating to growing and selling niche soybeans, but the infrastructure isn’t there yet in my region.

REINHARD: In Ohio, about 10% of soybeans are non-GMO, which carry about a $2 per bushel premium. We spend a lot of money on our national and state boards trying to communicate premium opportunities like this to the rest of our farmers, but we’re not always reaching farmers. This is an opportunity.

NALLEY: Finish these sentences: I wish we could develop ___? I wish we could do ___?

FUJAN: Soybeans that are cold tolerant and grow in no-till, high residue conditions.

BEANER: I need beans that grow faster and aren’t dependent on sun. I need a resilient, flexible bean that will take anything so that spray composition doesn’t need to be adjusted for every field based on what my neighbors or I have planted. I need a bean that will take anything.

NALLEY: If we’re moving through a new paradigm where oil is more valuable than the meal, and if we’re crushing for the oil and then the meal, how does the paradigm shift affect how we should look at the industry?

BEANER: From a research and board perspective, our focus was on the meal. Do you ship it? Where does it go? How is it used? We have crush plants making crude oil, and then are shipping it to be refined. Some meal that is shipped out is used for feed. For end users, what do you need me as a farmer to do to be successful? Do you need me to plant a different kind of bean? Plant in a different kind of way? Sell it differently? This meal versus oil argument will often come down to the dollar.

FUJAN: I think about the days back when trans fat was a big issue and consumption of soybean oil dropped off overnight. Fortunately, we had a balanced portfolio working with oil at that time, and biodiesel could absorb excess oil. I think it’s essential to have diversity. It’s important to work in both areas (soybean meal and soy oil) because you never know what will be coming down the road in the next week or next year.

GRIFFITHS: What terrifies me is that we’re only one hurricane away from a refinery closing on the Gulf of Mexico. If input costs are high, we will put more acres into soybeans. But then that could mean more weed and disease pressure, and farmers will take that gamble. If input prices don’t come down, we’ll plant more soybeans and have more oil and meal.

REINHARD: We don’t want to produce more oil or meal to affect either side. We need to continue to find uses for the meal and the oil.