Soy’s success a great production story 

Kansas soybean harvest (Courtesy photo)

When farmers think of success soybeans embody it. 

Nationally, the soybean yield average in 2023 was 50.6 bushels per acre (the fifth highest on record) with production of 4.16 billion bushels (the sixth highest on record), said Mark Licht, associate professor and Extension cropping systems specialist at Iowa State University

Historically, yields have been increasing about 0.5 to 0.6 bushels per year, he said. In the mid-1920s the first recorded soybean yields were about 15 bushels per acre. 

Yields doubled that by the mid-1960s, he said. 

“I can remember my father growing it as an ‘alternative’ crop in the 1960s that turned mainstream in Nebraska in a hurry,” said Kenlon Johannes, a long-time executive in the soybean industry. “When I returned to the farm in 1974, I saw it as my primary cash crop and money maker along with livestock.” 

Johannes joined the Nebraska Soybean Association and volunteered his time on the Nebraska Checkoff Board. 

Licht said by the mid-1990s, Iowa yields were just over 40 bushels to the acre as adoption of GMO soybeans started. 

“For me, it’s not uncommon to hear farmers speak of 80 to 90 bushels per acre field average yields in Iowa,” Licht said about today’s production. “Obviously, those are not what we see for all acres because the state average was only 58 bushels per acre. But in good growing conditions yield potential is quite a bit higher than our state and national yields.” 

Economic powerhouse

Today’s soybean industry has an economic impact of $124 billion, according to a 2023 study by the National Oilseed Processors Association and United Soybean Board. The impact includes $85.7 billion from soy production and $9.8 billion from processing. 

Farmer innovation partnered with academia’s and industry’s ability to test and develop new and more efficient production techniques has been the catalyst, Johannes said. Soybeans have been a versatile commodity from renewable fuels to food. 

“Since its inception in the 1960s the soybean checkoff—through its farmer leadership—has pushed the innovative envelope to help the industry transform the soybeans into more than a food ingredient, cooking oil and animal feed,” Johannes said. 

The major soybean producing states are similar to 20 years ago. Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, and Missouri are the leading states in production with three other states making impressive contributions. 

“The amount of increased acreage in North Dakota, South Dakota and Kansas has been astounding,” Johannes said. “If variety development and weather conditions would improve, those states could contribute greatly to increased U.S. soybean production.” 

Variety development with factors that include plant growth, development, management practice and yield have all better matched the climate.  

Licht said the number of acres in some states is holding steady while others are seeing increases that are coming at the expense of wheat because corn acres are holding up. 

“Part of this is strong commodity prices with corn and soybean and a reduction in production risk. Yield potential is largely coming from genetic advancements. GMOs allow for easier management as well as reducing weed competition,” Licht said. “Climate could be contributing to yield gains some but that is not as certain. We have been able to get better efficiency of crop inputs with advancement in technology.” 

Production grows

Johannes expects soybean production can continue to grow. “There will always be a battle for farmland use—between urban development taking land out of production and competing crops,” he said. “Soybeans have proven to be a profitable option to other crops so continued growth could happen.” 

Licht said additional breakthroughs are being eyed through improved conservation systems to see if combining multiple practices together can help with more resilient and less variability in year-to-year production. For farmers in Iowa that is looking at more no-tillage and cover crops but also looking at nutrient management and adjust crop management practices. 

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“I think with soybean, timely soybean planting is really a key to raising the yield bar but that can be more challenging when trying to adopt cover crops,” Licht said. 

Johannes has seen a major increase in acreage in North Dakota and with additional processing plants and other marketing opportunities in that region it could make that crop there more profitable than wheat. Soybeans then could continue the trend of increasing acres planted and he could envision additional acres in the region as well as western Kansas. 

“This is also happening because of continued improved variety development, efficient water usage and better farming practices including technical advances in weed and other pest control,” Johannes said. 

Licht said he is always concerned with disease pathogens. “We know we have some fungal pathogens (i.e. frogeye leaf spot) already developing resistance to fungicides. We also have issues with soybean cyst nematodes that have developed resistance to our best strategy for management. On top of that, weed resistance development is growing more and more every year.” 

Researchers will need to figure out resistance development to ensure pressure from weeds, insects and disease do not limit yield potential, Licht said, adding that unfortunately resistance seems to become increasingly more problematic. 

Johannes is bullish on soybeans. “While corn has noted itself as king, soybeans have been called the miracle crop and will continue to hold that title with new production and usage innovations.” 

Licht said soybeans have a relatively low cost of production and have stable yield increases and demand has grown. 

“Right now there is a bit of optimism around renewable diesel, which will drastically increase the demand for soybean and other oilseed crops,” Licht said. “What does concern me is that some of this increased acreage is coming at the cost of staple crops like wheat and in some cases marginal acres where soil degradation is a risk of causing increased water degradation.” 

Researchers are also focused on finding ways to make an impact long term for growers. Outcomes cannot just be based on higher yields, he said. “We have to show our research leads to sustainable soybean production and in some cases regenerative in nature. Our stakeholders are starting to demand this of farmers and our research has to move in that direction, too.” 

Investments in the industry will continue to be in genetics and plant breeding as well as crop, pest and nutrient management, Licht said, efforts in plant breeding will focus on solutions to resistance and production. Another area will be artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

“As this develops, farmers will have more prescriptive management approaches to utilize. This is just a really hot area not only in agriculture but many industries.” 

Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or [email protected].