By Karl Plume and Julie Ingwersen
CHICAGO, March 28 (Reuters) – U.S. farmers in the arid Plains states have traditionally grown wheat and raised cattle.
But this year, they are leading the race to plant soybeans, as the crop provides one of the few bright spots in a gloomy farm economy.
Farmers in these states, which include Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, have more choice now in what they grow as seeds have been developed over the past decade that thrive in the dry conditions typical of the region.
Soybean prices are up about seven percent from a year ago, buoyed by robust demand from Chinese hog producers and other animal feeders.
Prices for corn, meanwhile, are down almost four percent and wheat id down more than 10 percent.
Kansas farmer Mick Rausch is taking advantage of new seed varieties to sow three times more soybeans this spring than he ever has before on his farm in Garden Plain, in the south central part of the country’s top winter wheat state.
He has already ordered enough seed to plant 200 acres of his 750-acre farm this spring with a variety that matures more slowly but promises higher yields. Once his wheat crop is harvested in June or early July, another 150 acres may be “double cropped” in those fields with shorter-season soybeans.
“With the price of wheat, I’m still $1.50 (per bushel) below break-even,” he said. “Wheat isn’t paying the bills. We’ve got to try something different out here.”
The CBOT November soybean contract, representing the 2017 harvest, closed Monday at $9.71 per bushel, and new-crop December corn settled at $3.80 a bushel. New-crop July hard red winter wheat closed at $4.34-1/4 a bushel.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is due to release its annual prospective plantings report on Friday, with analysts on average expecting a 5.7 percent jump in soy acres from a year ago. Corn area is expected to fall 3.2 percent and all wheat seeding are expected to be eight percent lower.
In the Northern Plains, where traditional Midwest crops like corn and soy have been displacing crops such as wheat, oats and sunflowers in recent years, farmers are also expected to plant more beans.
“We’ve really shifted from a small grains state to growing more corn and soybeans,” said Andy Swenson, a North Dakota State University extension economist.
Last year, for the first time, North Dakota farmers planted more acres to soy than spring wheat, with 6.05 million acres of beans and 6.0 million acres of spring wheat, USDA data shows. They also planted 3.45 million acres of corn.
Nathan Kizer, seed manager at South Dakota Wheat Growers, a 5,000-member cooperative with locations in North and South Dakota, said better projected profits and lower production costs are driving farmers to plant more soybeans.
“Grower commitments are higher on soybeans versus corn. It’s hard to put an exact number on it, but it feels like there could be an 8 to 10 percent increase in soybean acres, definitely,” he said.
Those acres will largely come at the expense of corn and wheat, he added.