Soybeans continue to march west

soybeans

Highlights

  • Increasing acres and positive results for Prairie grown soybeans show the crop is more robust than many thought
  • Soybeans have numerous virtues, such as fixing their own nitrogen, low input requirements and established markets
  • Soybeans bring a strong weed control package that surpasses any other crop grown in the Prairies and have built-in pest control

Prairie farmers are putting soybeans to the test. Increasing acres and positive results in recent years show the crop is more robust than many thought. This success is answering the question that more Prairie farmers are asking: can soybean varieties succeed in this relatively harsh climate?

Canadian soybean pioneer Peter Hannam faced similar questions in Ontario some 50 years ago. Then a student at the Ontario Agricultural College, he heard professors say Ontario didn’t have enough heat units for soybeans and even if farmers somehow managed to grow a crop, what would the industry do with it?

To succeed, soybeans need agronomic traits such as disease tolerance and resistance, which we’ve incorporated into a lot of our varieties...

Hannam, though, sensed a huge untapped opportunity for Ontario farmers and went on to develop a company with other progressively minded farmers, First Line Seeds. Ultimately, through advanced plant breeding and new technology, they developed high-yielding varieties that thrived in lower heat units – long before anyone started thinking about growing soybeans as far north as Ottawa.

History may be poised to repeat itself in Western Canada. In 2015, Manitoba Feature Article surpassed Quebec for the first time in soybean acreage, amassing 1.3 million acres. Seed companies trial cold-tolerant varieties as far north and west as Saskatoon. There, respectable yields of 40 to 50 bushels an acre are not uncommon, comparable to production figures found in Ontario.

“Soybeans are becoming an exciting story here,” says Gary Lannin, sales manager for Monsanto in Saskatchewan. “In my area, they’re still in their infancy, but there’s a lot of interest and observers who are always hungry for high-value crops, and who have a strong desire to add diversity to their crop rotations.”

Breeding for yield

“Soybeans bring a very strong weed control package that surpasses any other crop farmers grow here,” he says. “In 2015 we had a fantastic year, an experience that shows soybeans can do well here. The next step is to grow them consistently.”

Plant breeders are enjoying this challenge. Don McClure, soybean product development scientist and soybean research manager for Syngenta Canada based in Arva, Ont., calls new soybean variety development a “fun experience” for breeders. “As we go west, we need shorter and shorter maturing varieties that are also high yielding,” he says. “For the first time, I can say we’re finally there.”

Soybeans have numerous virtues, such as fixing their own nitrogen, low input requirements and established markets. But to be profitable, they have to fill bins. “Farmers get paid for yield, so that’s our number one breeding target, no matter if we’re in the east or the west,” McClure says. “To succeed, soybeans need agronomic traits such as disease tolerance and resistance, which we’ve incorporated into a lot of our varieties. But ultimately, we default to yield.”

Prairie farmers can benefit from management lessons learned by Lannin, McClure and others in Ontario such as Dave Harwood, technical services manager for DuPont Pioneer Canada.

Pest resistance built in

As Harwood says, soybeans have experienced a number of agronomic challenges over the years but in each case, management tools have become available from input suppliers.

For example, soybean aphids emerged in the early 2000s. Foliar crop-protection products were rapidly registered, followed closely by seed treatments that effectively suppress aphid populations. Seed suppliers are now developing varieties with resistance.

As well, over the past two decades, soybean cyst nematodes have grown in significance in Ontario. In response, breeders have created varieties with resistance for virtually all maturities used there, allowing growers to maintain productivity in the face of this pest.

And disease control in soybeans using fungicides was largely unheard of 20 years ago. But growers are now able to benefit from crop protectants that help control the most damaging disease in Ontario soybeans – white mould – using foliar fungicides.

Weed-control traits

When glyphosate-resistant soybeans arrived in 1996, it was “game changing technology,” Harwood says. They contributed to improved weed control in other crops by lowering the weed seed bank and controlling perennial and biennial weeds.

And now, with the emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds, new soybean varieties with stacked traits that address most species will provide another tool set. These include varieties tolerant to glyphosate and dicamba, and glyphosate and 2,4-D, to address resistance in Canada fleabane, giant ragweed and even common ragweed.

“A lot of development work has gone on behind the scenes,” says Syngenta’s McClure. “Pending approval, varieties with these new traits are ready to be planted.”

From an AgriSuccess article (March/April 2016) by Owen Roberts (@TheUrbanCowboy).