Soybean meal sits in an outstretched hand.

(Photo: Katie James/Iowa Soybean Association)

Soybean surge: Exports show strength in recent reports

April 15, 2021 | Bethany Baratta

Soybeans led the way in total U.S. ag exports in 2020, and recent reports indicate continued strength in the months ahead.

This month, the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) released its 2020 U.S. Agricultural Export Yearbook summarizing U.S. ag commodity exports. U.S. ag exports totaled nearly $146 billion, up nearly 7% from 2019, and the second highest level on record (after the 2014 calendar year).

Soybeans were the largest contributor to the surge in exports in the 2020 calendar year. Soybeans were the top U.S. ag export, increasing 38% to a record $25.7 billion in 2020. Soybean exports accounted for nearly 18% of total U.S. ag exports. Increased shipments in U.S. corn and pork rounded out the top three exports.

In 2020, soybean shipments to China accounted for 55% of total soybean exports, according to FAS, returning to levels prior to China’s imposition of Section 232 and 301 retaliatory tariffs, when China accounted for at least 50 percent of total bean export value since 2009.

The signing of the Phase 1 agreement between the United States and China was implemented on February 14, 2020, after what’s considered the peak export window for U.S. soybeans.

However, China’s buying picked up throughout the summer.

“All annualized growth in aggregate soybean exports is fundamentally driven by China coming back into the market,” says Mac Marshall, vice president of market intelligence for the United Soybean Board (USB).

But double-digit export growth was also realized in Egypt, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

“Even with China coming back into the market in a big way, it has not been at the expense of other emerging markets that we’ve helped cultivate over the past few years,” Marshall says.

Checkoff investments are helping build demand for U.S. soybeans through various partnerships and programs, says Grant Kimberley, director of market development for the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA).

 One example is through the U.S. Soybean Export Council’s (USSEC) campaign, which seeks to build demand for U.S. soybeans throughout the world. Checkoff investments in partnerships with USA Poultry and Egg Export Council (USAPEEC), Soy Aquaculture Alliance, U.S. Meat Export Federation, USB and others also helps build preference for U.S. soybeans.

Coupled with strong demand for U.S soybeans is also a growing demand worldwide for protein, including pork, Kimberley noted.

U.S. pork exports reached nearly 3 million metric tons (mt) in 2020, topping the 2019 record by 11%, according to data released by USDA and compiled by the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF). In 2020, U.S. pork and pork variety meat exports to China were record-large at nearly 1 million metric tons, valued at $2.28 billion. U.S. beef exports to China were just under 43,000 metric tons, also a new record and up more than 300% from 2019. Beef export value was $310.2 million, a year-over-year increase of 260%.

Exports forecast higher

The April 9 World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report from the USDA showed higher U.S. soybean exports, lower crush and an unchanged soybean ending stocks in the 2021 soybean marketing year.

U.S. soybean exports were projected 30 million bushels higher in this month’s report at 2.28 billion bushels.

Global soybean production was raised 1.4 million tons to 363.2 million tons (13.3 billion bushels), mainly reflecting increased soybean production in Brazil. Brazilian production was forecast 2 million metric tons higher to a record 136 million metric tons. Nearly 85% of Brazil’s crop is harvested, though, as U.S. soybean growers know, there’s still potential for weather events to wreak havoc on grain quality.

Record prices for Brazilian crop farmers in 2020 are incentivizing farmers to plant more acres to soybeans, Marshall says. Brazil attaché  projects a record 141 million metric tons will be harvested in the 2021-2022 crop year.

U.S. soybean crush was reduced 10 million bushels to 2.19 billion bushels in the April WASDE report. U.S. soybean ending stocks remain at 120 million bushels.

The season-average soybean price is forecast at $11.25 per bushel, up 10 cents. The soybean oil price is projected at 45 cents per pound, up 4 cents reflecting sharply higher prices in March.

For a summary of the USDA’s April WASDE report, watch this recap from USB’s Mac Marshall and Kevin McNew, chief economist at the Farmers Business Network.