Farm Progress

Soybeans gaining foothold in upper Southeast

Roy Roberson 2

December 26, 2007

7 Min Read

Since the heyday in the late 1970s and 1980s in the Southeast, soybeans have taken a back seat to cotton, corn, peanuts and most traditional Southern crops. However, with bean prices up and production costs up across the board, many growers in the upper Southeast are taking a closer look at soybeans.

The demand for soybeans for biodiesel production is one cause for the increase in interest in the Southeast. Likewise, the dismal showing of corn, especially in terms of profitability throughout much of the drought-stricken Southeast, will likely cause some growers to look for other crops.

The bottom line is likely an increase in acreage, especially in some non-traditional soybean producing states. North Carolina currently produces about as many soybeans as the other Southeastern states combined and that ratio is not likely to change much.

Charles Hall, executive director of the North Carolina Soybean Growers Association says, “regarding an overall prediction on acres for next year — with the 2007 experience with corn and drought, and with continued high soybean prices in the range noted above and with futures contracts trading in the double digit range, I'd guess next year's acreage will look a lot like 2007 — nearly 1.4 million acres planted. I'd be interested to see how much wheat is planted this fall and how many beans are double-cropped behind wheat.”

Like most crops in the Southeast, soybeans took a big hit from the heat and drought in 2007. Hall says, North Carolina production is estimated at 28.8 million bushels, down 34 percent from 2006. The 2007 average yield forecast for the state is 21 bushels per acre, down 11 bushels an acre from last year.

Harvested soybean acreage in North Carolina in 2007 is estimated at 1.37 million and is almost unchanged from 1.36 million in 2006. USDA average farm price projections are in the $8.50 to $9.50 range, up considerably from the last few years, he adds.

The 2007 U.S. crop is forecast at 2.59 billion bushels, down 19 percent from last year as U.S. acres shifted to corn production. North Carolina soybean production is down 34 percent due to the effects of drought and summer heat, not shifts in planted acreage.

North Carolina planted acres were about the same as 2006 or up slightly.

“I don't know the exact numbers, but there was not any loss of soybean acreage to corn or other crops and I believe soybean plantings increased about 1 percent in acreage,” Hall adds.

The biggest yield robbers were drought and heat. Extended periods of heat especially during August caused soybean plants to shut down and go dormant until temperatures cooled.

Long-time North Carolina State Soybean Specialist Jim Dunphy says, “the hot, dry weather during the 2007 growing season dramatically reduced our soybean yields in North Carolina, and indeed in most of the Southeast.

With the abnormally high prices for soybeans, this yield reduction won't hurt our farmers as badly as it would have had prices been closer to the long-term averages, but it will impact the supply of seed for planting the 2008 crop.

“Although many of the companies supplying seed to the Southeast also have some production west of the Mississippi River, where yields were not reduced as dramatically, they typically also have some of their production in the Southeast, where supply of seed will have to be well below average. Our farmers would be well advised to talk to their seed supplier about which varieties they want just as soon as the data from this year's variety tests become available, rather than wait until tractors start running in the spring,” Dunphy adds.

In Virginia, Molly Payne, who is executive director of the state’s corn and small grain growers association says, “I can tell you that our growers are planting lots of small grains.

Fertilizer prices are astronomical — over $400 a ton for blended fertilizer. This will certainly have a negative affect on corn planted acres — which will most likely be turned into small grains and/or beans.

I have not yet seen any official numbers on 2008 planted acres though.”

In 2007, Virginia suffered a 30 percent decrease in corn production (drought) and about a 12 percent reduction in small grains yield (late freeze).

Virginia Soybean Specialist David Holshouser says, “there's a lot of wheat planted, so I imagine we'll be approaching two-thirds or three-fourths of our soybean acres following that harvest.”

Holshouser says there doesn’t appear to be any seed shortages, but demand has been high for soybean variety data, indicating growers are trying to get their seed orders in early to insure getting their preferred varieties. Holshouser says most years growers face some shortages in the most popular varieties and 2008 will likely be no exception.

Though quantity may be a minimal issue, seed quality may cause some concern for growers in 2008. Seed quality suffered, mainly due to dry weather. “We had shriveled up seed that were typical of phomopsis seed decay; but, no disease on the seed. Other than the shriveling, the color of the seed looked pretty good,” Holshouser says.

“In one area of Virginia, the crop literally died before it reached R7. Leaves were stuck to the plant. It looked like an early freeze or when defoliants stick cotton leaves. This reduced seed size, but also caused green seed in some fields. In seed loads that were rejected by buyers, the green seed ranged from 10 percent to 20 percent. Most finally found a buyer, but were docked pretty severely plus transportation costs. So, in the end, they probably received nearly $2 per bushel less for their beans,” the Virginia specialist says.

Overall, Virginia had one of the driest seasons on record in 2007, according to Holshouser. “Poor stands plagued us, especially following wheat. Wheat takes much of our soil moisture every year, but we usually have enough topsoil moisture to get the crop up,” he says.

“In 2007, stands ranged from 35 percent to 75 percent of what we normally expect. And this was the year I implemented new recommendations for our full-season crop! So, if growers followed my recommendations and got a poor stand, there wasn't much insurance left,” Holshouser adds.

The Virginia Tech agronomist says what stood out most about the 2007 crop was how spotty the rainfall was; therefore how variable the soybean crop was. For instance, he says, “soybeans might be near death in one area, five miles down the road they looked good, then five more miles they looked bad again. Basically, the only rain we had for most of the season was from thunderstorms. So, your crop depended upon if you were under the right cloud.”

Virginia growers did get statewide relief in mid-August, but that was followed with two more months of generally dry weather. Interestingly, the areas that experienced the most drought early ended up yielding pretty well considering everything. Those areas also caught some early September rains. The areas that did not experience the early drought (but no rain from August-October), ended up with much less yield than expected.

It wasn’t unusual for fields that looked like they would produce 15 bushel per acre beans, producing 30 bushels per acre. Like some beans that looked like they would produce 40 bushels per acre ended up with 15 bushels or less.

Overall, I think the 25-27 bushel state average estimate will be about right, unless yields of our double-crop beans surprise us, and they may, Holshouser says. “Interestingly enough, I'm seeing some record yields in our yield contest--if you had rain (or irrigation), then the extra sun evidently helped yields,” he adds.

”This was one of the fastest maturing crops I've ever experienced. Flowering was about 7-10 days ahead of schedule. By the end of the year, we were harvesting a couple of weeks earlier. We saw lots of shattering this year. I attribute to the very warm October.” Holshouser says.

Growers from the South Carolina border to central Virginia faced one of their worst insect problems. In South Carolina the big culprit was stinkbugs,

In most of North Carolina and Virginia stinkbugs were a sporadic problem, but corn earworm was the main culprit. Corn ear worm historically occurs at high enough levels in the upper Southeast to spray every 4-5 years. In 2007, some growers in North Carolina and Virginia sprayed 2-3 times — just for this pest.

Despite drought-related problems, many growers in the upper Southeast will likely take a look at soybeans. If prices stay high for beans and fuel, fertilizer and pesticide prices remain high, at least some of the increased corn acreage in 2007 will likely go into soybeans.

In many cases growers have increased wheat acreage, which provides some options for double-cropping.

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