A Soybean Success Story

Written by Andrea Hilderman

There are very good reasons soybeans are gaining popularity with growers on the Prairies, finding a place further west every year. The meteoric rise in acres in Manitoba has been well documented over the last decade or more. As growers have gained experience, they have become more and more confident about soybean agronomy and their place in the rotation.

Talking to growers and agronomists across the Prairies, there are some commonalities when it comes to being successful with soybeans.

The top six tips identified for success, for all areas:
• Choosing a variety with a suitable maturity for your growing season
• Inoculating both the seed and in the furrow, especially if soybeans have never been seeded in the field before
• Seeding into a sufficiently warm seedbed
• Ensuring seed rates are high enough to produce 160-180,000 LIVE PLANTS per acre
• Rolling pre- or post-emergence
• Spray early to ensure a clean field at harvest

Get all of these right, and any grower will be rewarded with a successful crop – barring anything that Mother Nature might have up her sleeve that can’t be avoided.

Angela Brackenreed might be better known as an agronomy expert with the Canola Council of Canada, but she is also a farmer, farming her land in partnership with her dad in Justice, Manitoba. “Soybeans are relatively new in this area,” she explains. “This will be my third crop and my dad’s sixth.” Key to successful adoption for her has been the close proximity of experienced growers further east in the province where it is a well-established crop, then tailoring those experiences to her own farm. “Growers in Manitoba also have really great resources available to them through organizations like Manitoba Agriculture, and the Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers Association,” says Brackenreed. “This has definitely made it easier than, say, a very niche crop that has little to no support. That has certainly contributed to the success growers are having with the crop.”

Soybeans were an easy fit into the Brackenreed rotation, with the biggest concern being how they would work in a mostly zero-till/direct seed situation. “The research, and our first experiences, showed that we could seed soybeans into residue. If we’d had to consider additional tillage operations, it would have limited adoption in western Manitoba, I think. Also, being able to use our existing drill means we’ve not had to make any major changes to our practices or major investments.” Indeed, the biggest investment Brackenreed has made is buying her own roller which gives her the ability to roll her fields on her schedule, not the contractor’s.

Some of the key learnings have been with soil temperature and seeding. “Soil temperature was worrying at first,” she explains. “Could we seed at night when it’s cooler, for example? But I’ve found soybeans to be more forgiving than canola which can be very finicky in its early growth stages.” She has also found soybeans to have fewer insect and disease threats but expects that over time, that will change as soybeans become more common in her area.

“Soybeans do not like saline conditions, and while we know we have some salinity issues in areas, soybeans will definitely show you where you didn’t know you had issues! Finding the right field can be a challenge.”

Brackenreed recalls her first harvest very well. “I was thinking to myself this is a dream. With the header in flex, it was contouring the ground and it seemed easy to set the combine for losses – much easier than a small seeded crop.” But as with many things in life, the dream didn’t last forever. Losses in 2017 were higher. “Last year, they were wrapping around the reel and we couldn’t get them to clear the knife – it was really tough, and the losses reflected that as well.” While the seed was mature, what Brackenreed found was the drydown was incomplete and the residue was viney and surprisingly tough to deal with, especially as it looks like there’s really not much there.

Soybeans have moved west in Manitoba and are continuing apace into Saskatchewan. Glenda Clezy, an agronomist specialist with Saskatchwan Pulse Growers is seeing soybeans start to gain momentum. “Soybeans present an opportunity to access a global market and perhaps with less risk than pulses,” she remarks. “Saskatchewan is at the same stage Manitoba was about 10 years ago, looking at acres and yields, and we expect it to follow the same trend over the next decade.”

Not only is the market attractively stable for growers, soybeans also keep a nodulating crop in the rotation which has positive nitrogen fixing and soil health benefits for the farm.
Brad Eggum is an experienced soybean grower at Halbrite, in the southeast part of Saskatchewan. “We started growing soybeans in 2009, looking for the earliest maturing varieties available at the time that had good photosensitive qualities,” he says. “These would mature even when they didn’t get the right amount of heat.” Eggum has found that earlier varieties are now a focus of seed developers as they’ve seen the potential for the crop in the west and on the so-called fringes of the traditional soybean growing areas. “This is the new frontier for genetic companies and they are looking hard at what they have for early maturity because there is a burgeoning market hungry to try soybeans.”

Eggum is highly focused on research and adopting the best agronomic practices, not only for his own farm success but for that of his customers, as he also owns a retail business.
Agreeing with the key factors for success, Eggum is quick to emphasize the importance of the first 24 to 48 hours the seed is in the ground. “Soybean seed starts imbibing water very quickly once seeded, and are very susceptible to chilling injury at that time,” he explains. “If the seed imbibes water cooler than eight degrees, this will negatively impact the seedlings, so this is a critical time. Even a cold rain will be concerning.” Lingering impacts of this chilling injury can be nodes that are closer to the ground making for more difficult harvesting.

Prairie soils do not contain any native soil rhizobia for soybean, which is, of course, a nodulating crop. “Soybeans need a pile of actual nitrogen, and even for fields which have had soybeans seeded in the past, the seed should be inoculated twice. We don’t know how well the rhizobia survive, and in my experience, it’s an inexpensive insurance I wouldn’t do without.”

Eggum’s final comments on soybeans are also a key reason soybeans are finding favour with Prairie growers. “Soybeans are not subject to downgrading at harvest, like wheat is,” he explains. “They are also shatter resistant, so they work very well in not demanding attention at harvest when other crops need to be combined. They can sit out until the end.”

Looking even further west to Alberta, soybeans are just really starting to register. Patrick Fabian is a seed grower in Tilley, Alberta, just east of Brooks. “Somewhat surprisingly, I have 10 years experience with soybeans,” he explains. “I’ve always known they could have a place in the rotation as a nitrogen fixing crop, as well as being a good cash crop.” Not only that, Fabian sees soybeans offering an alternative to the ‘canola-snow-canola’ rotation that was unfortunately more common than anyone would like to admit. Clubroot is a symptom of the over-zealous inclusion of canola in rotations, another issue that is spreading from west to east across the Prairies.

“Soybeans are a great option to peas as well,” explains Fabian. “Peas are susceptible to a number of diseases that are becoming problematical to manage, and soybeans offer a chance to break that cycle.”
The key for soybeans in Alberta is maturity. “Up until 2017, varieties were too late. But new ‘000’ beans have ushered in the possibility for growing beans here, and now we see trials all the way from Manning to Lethbridge. Last year, some of the best soybeans grown in the province were in Grande Prairie and Bruderheim. So the potential is definitely there.”

Fabian was caught in the chicken-and-egg scenario for a few years though – while growers wanted to grow soybeans, there were no places to sell them. “I started talking to various brokers to see if they could get something going but they needed some volume, maybe ten thousand acres.” Well, fast forward to today and there are a couple of soybean processing facilities, one at Granum and the other outside Camrose. “Additionally, there are some Hutterite colonies that have set up processing as an alternative to buying soybean meal for various dairy, chicken and hog enterprises they have.”

With earlier and earlier soybeans in development, the biggest hurdle to more widespread adoption in Alberta is gradually fading. “Growers in Alberta are ready, willing and able to get into soybeans, especially when you consider they have already been growing peas and lentils,” he says. “Really, it’s like preaching to the converted who are anxious to get on board!”

The growth of soybeans throughout the west is a testament to their fit in the farm rotation and their unique agronomic requirements which generally work to ease the workload at key times for growers. There is a large and dynamic global market, lowering the impact of any one importer on price and movement. Additionally, the resources available to ensure successful adoption are there, including the all-important peer-to-peer learning growers are providing each other. While soybean acres will certainly see some ups and downs, the angle of growth is sure to continue steadily upwards for many years yet.