Soybean and Feed Industries Examine Protein Levels

Jan 10, 2020  | 7 min  | Ep4521

The Chinese New Year will be celebrated on January 25. In 2019, pork prices in China nearly doubled as supplies dwindled due to African Swine Fever and high tariffs on U.S. imports. In September of last year, import tariffs were lowered in an attempt to alleviate some of the pressure. 

As Chinese producers continue rebuilding their herds, they will be looking to source their feed based on price and protein content.

Colleen Bradford Krantz took a closer look at how U.S. soybeans measure up in our Cover Story. 

By Colleen Bradford Krantz, colleen.krantz@iowapbs.org

For decades, the soybean meal used in livestock feed was evaluated by the percentage of protein it contained. The higher the protein, the more the soy meal was valued as a way to grow healthy, strong livestock. So when studies pinpointed a slight but notable decline in U.S. soybean protein levels - 0.8 of one percent over 30 years to 34.3 percent - some livestock nutrition experts and plant breeders became concerned.

Hans Stein, University of Illinois: “The decline we see in protein concentration in soybeans, in soybean meal is a pretty big deal because it reduces the value and ...you have to remember that pigs and poultry consume more than 75 percent of all the soybean meal that’s produced in the world.”

Jeff Thompson, a research lead for North American soybeans at Corteva Agrasciences in Johnston, Iowa, points out that, as yields have increased, the amount of protein produced per acre has actually grown. But he understands how the dip in the percentage in each bushel is problematic for livestock producers.

Jeff Thompson, Corteva Agrisciences: “So as protein concentrations go down, more soybeans need to be crushed. And that alters the feed rations, for poultry and swine in particular...The rate of decline has been slightly greater than the rate of decline say in Brazil. And the reason for that is temperature is also a component ...When temperatures are decreased, especially during seed development and maturity, protein levels tend to go down...”

While most of the expansion of soybean planting in recent decades has been to cooler climates of the northern U.S. the bulk of expansion in South America has been to warmer regions. Industry leaders acknowledge the lower protein levels could mean the loss of market share.

For row crop farmers, there is no direct financial incentive to focus on the amount of protein. When taking their soybeans to the grain elevator, farmers are generally paid solely on the number of bushels they bring in.

Morey Hill, Iowa Soybean Association Board of Directors: “You’ve got to look at what is gonna return for what I’m paying for the seed. … to see if we’re gonna, you know, be above or below the profit line.”

The two traits also tend to have an inverse relationship: as yield increases, protein tends to decline. A checkoff-funded study suggests farmers could earn an additional $7.70 to $12.96 per acre if they increased protein levels by 1 percent.

Morey Hill, Iowa Soybean Association Board of Directors: “In the 21st Century we’ve gotten so good at our technology… that we should be looking a little deeper as to what the meal needs to do for whatever we are feeding it to."

Researchers and animal nutritionists are taking a deep dive inside the soybean and examining essential amino acids which generally increase as protein percentages move higher. Animals are unable to make these on their own and must consume them to grow.

A debate has arisen over whether the increase in the essential amino acids - lysine and methionine among them – slow a bit once a soybean moves beyond a certain protein percentage.

Ed Anderson, Senior Director of Research, Iowa Soybean Association: “This is a hotly contested subject, this whole thing about whether U.S. soybeans are high enough in protein. Can we compete with South American soybeans? Are Northern United States soybeans high enough in proteins to compete with southern U.S. soybeans? These studies, which are going to continue, are going to look at is: is it all about total proteins or about analyzing and determining the right amino acid balance?”

Some are already advocating that soybeans should be marketed by amino acid levels rather than overall protein.

Ed Anderson, Senior Director of Research, Iowa Soybean Association: “My bias based on the data I’ve seen and my understanding of biochemistry is that I think we are going to migrate rather quickly toward analyzing soybeans and the meal from soybeans at the amino acids level rather than the crude protein level.”

Morey Hill, soybean farmer and Iowa Soybean Association Board of Director member: “I’ve been on some trade missions – educational, you know – and that’s the first thing that’s always throw out: That our soy – our protein – is just a little bit less than that might be coming from South America or other sources. And so it’s a hurdle to get over to having to talk about something besides protein.”

Stein says this may change. Synthetic amino acids are becoming more commonly used in both Asia and the U.S., threatening soybean meal’s position in feeding livestock.

Hans Stein, University of Illinois: “The feed companies and the integrators can purchase individual amino acids and more and more of them, which means they need less and less soybean meal so I think that’s the biggest competitor... It would take the entire industry – but the crushers more than anyone else – to change how they pay the producer. If a producer is rewarded for delivering high amino acid beans, then the producers would start changing and start selecting those high amino acid beans from the breeders.”

At Corteva, where it takes seven years to develop and release a new soybean variety, researchers are focused on yield, and disease or pest resistance first. However, they are not discounting the need to watch protein percentages.

Jeff Thompson, Corteva Agrisciences: “We, in the research community really need to strike a balance between protein concentrations and yield. And what our goal would be or could be, would be to stabilize the decline in protein concentrations while continuing to improve yields.That would be a way that we could benefit both the animal agriculture industry and our farmer customers.”

For decades, the soybean meal used in livestock feed was evaluated by the percentage of protein it contained. The higher the protein, the more the soy meal was valued as a way to grow healthy, strong livestock. So when studies pinpointed a slight but notable decline in U.S. soybean protein levels - 0.8 of one percent over 30 years to 34.3 percent - some livestock nutrition experts and plant breeders became concerned.

Hans Stein, University of Illinois: “The decline we see in protein concentration in soybeans, in soybean meal is a pretty big deal because it reduces the value and ...you have to remember that pigs and poultry consume more than 75 percent of all the soybean meal that’s produced in the world.”

Jeff Thompson, a research lead for North American soybeans at Corteva Agrasciences in Johnston, Iowa, points out that, as yields have increased, the amount of protein produced per acre has actually grown. But he understands how the dip in the percentage in each bushel is problematic for livestock producers.

Jeff Thompson, Corteva Agrisciences: “So as protein concentrations go down, more soybeans need to be crushed. And that alters the feed rations, for poultry and swine in particular...The rate of decline has been slightly greater than the rate of decline say in Brazil. And the reason for that is temperature is also a component ...When temperatures are decreased, especially during seed development and maturity, protein levels tend to go down...”

While most of the expansion of soybean planting in recent decades has been to cooler climates of the northern U.S. the bulk of expansion in South America has been to warmer regions. Industry leaders acknowledge the lower protein levels could mean the loss of market share.

For row crop farmers, there is no direct financial incentive to focus on the amount of protein. When taking their soybeans to the grain elevator, farmers are generally paid solely on the number of bushels they bring in.

Morey Hill, Iowa Soybean Association Board of Directors: “You’ve got to look at what is gonna return for what I’m paying for the seed. … to see if we’re gonna, you know, be above or below the profit line.”

The two traits also tend to have an inverse relationship: as yield increases, protein tends to decline. A checkoff-funded study suggests farmers could earn an additional $7.70 to $12.96 per acre if they increased protein levels by 1 percent.

Morey Hill, Iowa Soybean Association Board of Directors: “In the 21st Century we’ve gotten so good at our technology… that we should be looking a little deeper as to what the meal needs to do for whatever we are feeding it to.”

Researchers and animal nutritionists are taking a deep dive inside the soybean and examining essential amino acids which generally increase as protein percentages move higher. Animals are unable to make these on their own and must consume them to grow.

A debate has arisen over whether the increase in the essential amino acids - lysine and methionine among them – slow a bit once a soybean moves beyond a certain protein percentage.

Ed Anderson, Senior Director of Research, Iowa Soybean Association: “This is a hotly contested subject, this whole thing about whether U.S. soybeans are high enough in protein. Can we compete with South American soybeans? Are Northern United States soybeans high enough in proteins to compete with southern U.S. soybeans? These studies, which are going to continue, are going to look at is: is it all about total proteins or about analyzing and determining the right amino acid balance?”

Some are already advocating that soybeans should be marketed by amino acid levels rather than overall protein.

Ed Anderson, Senior Director of Research, Iowa Soybean Association: “My bias based on the data I’ve seen and my understanding of biochemistry is that I think we are going to migrate rather quickly toward analyzing soybeans and the meal from soybeans at the amino acids level rather than the crude protein level.”

Morey Hill, soybean farmer and Iowa Soybean Association Board of Director member: “I’ve been on some trade missions – educational, you know – and that’s the first thing that’s always throw out: That our soy – our protein – is just a little bit less than that might be coming from South America or other sources. And so it’s a hurdle to get over to having to talk about something besides protein.”

Stein says this may change. Synthetic amino acids are becoming more commonly used in both Asia and the U.S., threatening soybean meal’s position in feeding livestock.

Hans Stein, University of Illinois: “The feed companies and the integrators can purchase individual amino acids and more and more of them, which means they need less and less soybean meal so I think that’s the biggest competitor... It would take the entire industry – but the crushers more than anyone else – to change how they pay the producer. If a producer is rewarded for delivering high amino acid beans, then the producers would start changing and start selecting those high amino acid beans from the breeders.”

At Corteva, where it takes seven years to develop and release a new soybean variety, researchers are focused on yield, and disease or pest resistance first. However, they are not discounting the need to watch protein percentages.

Jeff Thompson, Corteva Agrisciences: “We, in the research community really need to strike a balance between protein concentrations and yield. And what our goal would be or could be, would be to stabilize the decline in protein concentrations while continuing to improve yields.That would be a way that we could benefit both the animal agriculture industry and our farmer customers.”

By Colleen Bradford Krantz, colleen.krantz@iowapbs.org

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