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Covering upwards of 80 million acres of cropland, soybeans are the second largest crop produced in the U.S. (after corn) and a key feed grain. Demand is growing for this versatile legume, and farmers are consistently producing better yields even as they farm less acreage.
- Intro to Soybeans
- Major Soybean Growing Regions
- Major Soybean Varieties
- Soybean Lifecycle
- Soybean Market Size And Price
- Soybean Uses And End Markets
Intro to Soybeans
Closely related to peas and clover, soybeans are a major crop for the U.S., with farmers here producing 34% of the world’s supply. Soybeans are second only to corn in planted acreage, and they are used as both a whole product and a raw material.
Soybean plants can produce up to 80 pods each, with three beans per pod. It’s a hardy plant that can grow in a variety of well-drained soils.
Major Soybean Growing Regions
Where are soybeans grown? The major soybean-growing region in the U.S. is the upper Midwest. Illinois led in the production of soybeans in 2021, growing just over 672 million bushels. Iowa followed closely behind, with nearly 622 million bushels. The next three states — Minnesota, Nebraska, and Indiana — produced roughly half Illinois's total.
In recent decades, temperatures and precipitation have inched upward across the upper Midwest, where soybean yields are highest. Surprisingly, these conditions are actually helping to increase production.
Soybeans are also a significant crop for farmers across the lower Midwest and the South.
Major Soybean Varieties
There are two types of soybeans:
- Indeterminate: These taller varieties continue to grow as flowers appear on the lower nodes. These are better for shorter growing seasons in northern parts of the U.S.
- Determinate: Shorter and bushier than their indeterminate counterparts, determinate soybeans stop growing tall and produce all of their flowers at once. They are typically grown in warmer areas with longer growing seasons.
There are over 2,500 different types of soybeans, but most commercial growers focus on the maturity group that works best for their climate. Maturity groups are classified based on how long it will take the soybean to grow from seed to harvest. Soybean farmers select the maturity group that best suits their growing season.
Growing soybeans is dictated by the temperature and the amount of light available to the plants.
Regardless, all soybeans go through the same lifecycle of vegetative growth stages and reproductive stages:
- Vegetative growth stages: These stages focus on sending down the plant’s branching taproot and growing vegetation. Plants develop nodes where buds are located. Soybean plant height at the end of this stage is up to 14 inches, and plants are resilient. Even if 50% of leaves are damaged, yield is only reduced by 3%.
- Reproductive stages: When plants begin to flower they are most at risk. Blooms appear on the third to sixth nodes first. After full bloom, pods begin to form. Only about 25% of pods will create a soybean, and this number can plummet as development continues. At full maturity, soybean plant height is up to five feet tall. Approximately 95% of harvestable pods are ready and should be dried to 15% moisture before harvest.
In the northern hemisphere, the soybean harvest usually starts in October and ends in November.
The life cycle of soybeans is dominated by special considerations:
- What type of soil do soybeans grow in? Soybeans prefer well-drained (not sandy) soil that is slightly acidic.
- How long does it take soybeans to germinate? They begin to grow from seed quickly, taking just two days to germinate.
- How much water do soybeans need? Soybeans are a water-intensive crop that requires 15 to 25 inches of rain per year. This is especially important in mid-to-late reproductive stages. A lack of water just before harvest can severely impact yields.
So what does the soybean crop look like?
Soybean plants look very different across their life cycle. Small dark green plants produce self-pollinating white or purplish flowers before becoming five-foot swaying stems with soybean pods (indeterminate) or bushier plants that stay just around 2.5 feet tall (determinate).
Soybean Market Size And Price
The predictions about the soybean market size and prices reflect a decrease in planted acreage but higher yields. Currently, just over 87 million acres are being harvested in the U.S., but the expected yield from 2022 to 2023 has risen by just over 25.5 million bushels to 4.53 billion bushels. The U.S. expects to export roughly half of the soybean crop (2.16 billion bushels).
Soybean Uses And End Markets
A soybean crop has many uses that are not readily apparent to the average consumer. In the U.S, according to the USDA, 70% of soybeans are used for animal feed, with another 15% utilized in oils.
Renewable diesel represents an important growing market for U.S. soybeans. Policy initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and move towards more renewable energy sources are driving higher demand for soybean oil.
This could lead to higher prices for soybeans, especially in regions where processing infrastructure is dense, in turn increasing acres planted to soybeans.
Beyond the soy milk, tofu, and meat substitutes many people are familiar with, soybeans are used in other applications that include:
- Industrial uses such as fungicides, inks, oiled fabrics, paints, and many more
- As animal feeds, not just for poultry and cows but also bees, fish, and domesticated pets
- In cosmetics and beauty products
- In refined foods such as cookies, crackers, creamers, and cooking oils
In terms of markets, China is far and away the largest market for exported U.S. soybeans, taking in over 14 billion metric tons of soybeans in 2021. The next four largest markets — the UK/EU, Mexico, Egypt, and Japan — import just a fraction of that amount from the U.S.
Soybeans are a major component of many U.S. farmers’ businesses and crucial to their livelihoods, and thus to our economy as a whole. They are an integral part of our food supply and are playing an increasingly important role in our transportation sector. Take a look at our offerings page to see current and past farm offerings growing soybeans.
Please note: The information above is not intended as investment advice or a recommendation to invest in any securities. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. For additional risk disclosures regarding farmland investing and the risks of investing on AcreTrader, please see individual farm offering pages as well as our terms and conditions.
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