Look Beyond Yield

Soybean Industry Increases Efforts to Promote Importance of Oil, Protein Content

(Progressive Farmer photo by Thinkstock / iStock)

It doesn't matter which hat Doug Winter wears, his perspective on the value of soybean composition is the same. As a farmer, he chooses varieties with the best protein and oil levels he can to meet the needs of end users. As a seed sales representative, Winter encourages other farmers to consider composition in their variety selections. And, as a director for the United Soybean Board (USB), the Mill Shoals, Ill., farmer encourages seed companies to share the information. Soy checkoff-funded programs are aimed at educating farmers about component value.

"I can get on my soapbox and talk with anybody about the importance of protein and oil to our customers," says Winter, who also grows corn, wheat, white corn and seed beans. "My hope is that protein and oil analysis will be done routinely when farmers sell soybeans, and that data [is then] shared with farmers. We may get paid by the bushel, but protein and oil content should be an agronomic selection tool just like yield. Farmers need to purchase an entire product package."

Winter would like to see a greater and more uniform effort from seed companies to publicize protein and oil values for their varieties by listing them in seed catalogs with other attributes.

"Print and advertising are the best avenues to make farmers aware of protein and oil information. Right now, the information is patchy across the industry and not always consistent," he says. "Composition should be as easy to find as a variety's defensive package or yield potential."


Soybean farmers who visit www.pioneer.com will find protein and oil content, notes Russ Sanders, DuPont Pioneer director for food and industry markets. "We have listed protein and oil for many years. Our emphasis as a company is on soybean composition and downstream markets," he says. "While the protein and oil values we list are not guaranteed numbers, a multiyear view can provide a pretty good estimate. Weather affects protein and oil levels in any given year."

Sanders finds farmers and processors who are interested in protein and oil data are generally farming in northern geographies or areas where protein or oil premiums are offered.

"We are disappointed there is not more interest from customers in protein and oil at this point, but bushel yield is what drives farmer profitability today," he says. "As any variety comes through our production development pipeline, we make sure protein and oil levels are good, along with yield potential and any defensive traits. We partner with groups like the American Soybean Association and USB to help raise awareness of the value of soybean composition among farmers."


Winter notes the soy checkoff collaborates with seed companies on a variety of composition initiatives, from research projects to industry partnerships. One example is the USB's Value Task Force (VTF), established in 2010 to explore ways to increase overall U.S. soybean crop value and farmer profitability.

In addition, the soy checkoff supports the online Soybean Quality Toolbox (www.growsoybeanvalue.com), which allows farmers to find high-quality, high-yielding soybean varieties for their area.

Beck's Hybrids also tests all soybean varieties for protein and oil content, quality traits market manager Trek Murray says. Beck's maintains the information in its product manual where dealers can easily access the information and share it with interested parties.

"We don't get many farmer requests for the information, but processors and end users ask for protein and oil content of specific varieties. Clearly, soybean buyers are interested in the details," Murray says. "Beck's believes it is important to pay for all of our varieties to be tested and is more than happy to share the information. We want to promote and share the data so U.S. soybean farmers can be as competitive as possible and gain world market share."


In the future, Sanders expects to see a long-term evolution in what farmers want from seed companies. He believes varieties with exceptional yield will continue to drive demand for specific soybean varieties. But Sanders anticipates protein and oil, and other attributes will also be taken into greater consideration. DuPont Pioneer is studying the traditionally inverse relationship between protein and oil, and looking for ways to improve both in their varieties.

"We want to improve protein and oil simultaneously," Sanders explains. "Beyond Plenish, our high-oleic soybean, we are a ways from commercial product introductions. Our pipeline has a combination of seed products that could improve soybean meal feeding value, protein, energy and other oil benefits," he says. "The ultimate customer is industry, and farmers will become more sensitive to that."


Illinois farmer and USB director Doug Winter says soy checkoff investments will continue to be made in educating farmers about protein and oil value. He encourages farmers to talk with their seed dealers and ask for composition information of the varieties they choose.

"We have been working to raise awareness of protein and oil at the state and national levels. We have seen an increase in farmer understanding of composition the last couple of years," Winter says. "But we hope more farmers will learn that composition can increase value per acre."

The Illinois Soybean Association (ISA) for the last three years has been working to measure protein and oil levels across the state and increase farmer awareness about the value of that information. ISA conducts a statewide yield-, protein- and oil-measurement program, gathering soybean samples from elevators in nearly every Illinois county. In 2014, ISA also asked farmers to submit samples and shared results with those who participated in the program.

Through the sampling, researchers have found that protein levels vary less than yield. Two years of samples showed higher protein in northern and eastern Illinois, when conventional wisdom would suggest protein is generally higher farther to the south. The sampling also has raised more interest in determining the relationship between rainfall and composition.

Statewide sampling led ISA to create a related initiative last season-HY+Q (High Yield plus Quality).

"HY+Q is designed to promote an array of traits that increase soybean value," ISA research director Linda Kull says. "We want to show farmers and other stakeholders that the HY+Q concept of high yield and quality can work in any region with any value-added trait, whether that's high energy, low carbohydrate, high oleic or a high-value amino acid blend."

Kull says ISA decided to look at protein first since high-yield, high-protein varieties often are listed in seed catalogs and are preferred by livestock feed customers. She says studies are under way in three states to take a fresh look at how soybean varieties and agronomic practices intersect with protein levels. ISA is working with seed companies to step up, identify and help showcase their high-yielding varieties that best meet soybean and livestock farmer needs.

ISA's goal is to team up with four seed companies by September 2016. To date, 13 seed companies participate in the protein- and oil-sampling effort. Discussions are under way to get those companies recognized by farmers in building awareness for HY+Q soybeans. ISA offers promotional support to get identified HY+Q varieties into planters. As the program gains momentum, ISA hopes other companies will join. Visit www.ilsoy.org/composition for details.