The Push For Protein

Partnership's goal is to increase average levels 1% without reducing yield.

The protein content in soybeans has declined in recent decades leaving U.S. growers at a competitive disadvantage, Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture

Science From the Field highlights DuPont Pioneer’s industry-leading research to help growers find profitable agronomic solutions for their farming operations.

There’s a growing effort in the soybean industry to address the declining protein content in today’s modern, high-yielding soybean varieties and improve the quality of the soybean meal made from them.

The undertaking is critical for the continued success of U.S. growers in a highly competitive global market. That’s why the United Soybean Board (USB) and DuPont Pioneer are working together to improve protein levels in the nation’s soybean crop.

Steve Schnebly, senior research manager with DuPont Pioneer, explains that the protein level in soybeans has gradually fallen as yields increased. “The two characteristics--seed yield and protein content--are negatively correlated, so when yields increase, protein level declines. Because farmers are paid primarily on yield, the major focus from seed companies and others has been on increasing yields. However, the resulting decline in the protein level of U.S. soybeans has now gotten to the point that it is having an impact on export sales. To address this issue, we are exploring novel methods in breeding to stop the decline in protein levels without reducing yield potential,” he says.

The increase in soybean yields has been dramatic. Over the past 58 years, the national average yield has increased by .43 bushels per year. However, since 2012 the average yield has improved at an annual rate of 1.8 bushels per acre.

Meanwhile, data from the U.S. Soybean Export Council reveals that the average protein level in the past decade has fallen to 34.7% compared to 35.1% the previous 30 years. The protein content from the bumper crops the past four years averaged just 34.3% and the 2017 crop averaged 34.1%--the lowest since protein levels were first measured in 1986.

Decimal Points Matter:

While it may seem slight, this decline in protein content is costing U.S. growers in the export market compared to competitors like Brazil, where growing conditions typically result in protein levels around 37%. A decade ago the U.S. had a 38% share of the market to China--the world’s top soybean importer--while Brazil had a 34% share. Now, Brazil supplies 57% of Chinese soybean imports compared to 31% from the U.S.

“Soybean yields in Brazil are climbing and their protein levels are falling as well,” says Schnebly. “But their warmer temperatures and longer days mean their protein levels are naturally higher.”

Mark Winkle, USB’s senior director of U.S. Domestic Programs, says the recent geographic shift in soybean acreage is also a factor in lower protein. “In the last decade soybean acreage has increased dramatically in northern states like North and South Dakota and Minnesota. Because of the shorter growing season and cooler temperatures in those areas, the soybean plant doesn’t express as much protein. Differences can range from .75% to 1.5% lower than soybeans grown in the Southeast. It’s the same advantage Brazil has, but to a lesser extent,” he says.

Winkle adds that, since northern soybeans are exported out of the Pacific Northwest, there’s less opportunity to blend-up protein levels. “Soybeans from the Midwest are exported out of the Gulf and can be blended with higher protein soybeans from the Southeast,” he explains.

Soybeans are crushed to remove the oil, and protein is concentrated in the remaining meal. Roughly 98% of all soybean meal is fed to livestock and for the greatest value it needs to have a protein content of at least 47.5%. That’s difficult to reach when the soybeans being processed average just 34% protein. As a result, some soybean processors have had to reduce the protein level they guarantee in the meal they sell.

“Animal nutritionists value all feed ingredients, including soybean meal. But when their calculation of value in the ration decreases, either less meal is used in favor of substitutes or the price of the meal must decline to maintain its inclusion rate,” explains Winkle.

Search for solutions:

Pioneer and the USB are making a shared investment in the effort to improve soybean protein levels.

“Our goal is to stop the decline and increase average protein levels by 1% without reducing yields,” explains Schnebly. “Already, we have identified internal and public elite high-protein germplasm that can be combined with our leading agronomic lines. We have also developed new plant breeding technologies that we will apply to this old problem and try to have more success than in the past.

“There are many tools available--including Pioneer’s Accelerated Yield Technology 4.0--that are helping us understand the relationship between protein and yield so we can improve the composition of the soybean,” he adds.

Winkle says the hope is to repeat the success that occurred when the USB combined with Pioneer and other seed companies to create high-oleic soybeans. The European Commission authorized the import of Pioneer brand Plenish high-oleic and glyphosate-tolerant trait stacks in late 2017.

“The board [USB] invested $60 million of producers’ checkoff money in that five-year program which should result in the production of 16 million acres of high-oleic soybeans that generate a premium price for growers. We hope for a similar success with high protein soybeans,” says Winkle.

The Protein Challenge:

> While U.S. soybean yields have climbed to record highs, protein levels have fallen to record lows.

> Soybeans grown in Brazil average nearly 1.5% higher protein than U.S. soybeans.

> Southern Hemisphere growing conditions--warmer temperatures and longer days--produce naturally higher protein levels.

> The higher protein content of soybeans from Brazil has allowed the exporter to capture the lion’s share of the huge Chinese market


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