For years, soybeans have been the dominant crop in eastern Manitoba.
However, the proportion of beans to other crops may have got out of whack.
Farmers seeded 46,000 acres of soybeans last year in the Rural Municipality of Brokenhead northeast of Winnipeg, compared to 14,100 acres of canola and 15,600 acres of hard red spring wheat. This means they planted more than three acres of beans for every one acre of canola.
The three to one ratio wasn’t a great idea in 2017, mostly because conditions were too dry for soybeans last summer. Data from Manitoba Agricultural Services Corp., the provincial crop insurer, shows that soybean yields were 31.3 bushels per acre in the RM of Brokenhead.
The average canola yield in the RM was 55.9 bu. per acre.
The average red spring wheat yield was 69 bu. acre.
Those numbers explain why soybean acres are down in Brokenhead and across Manitoba in 2018.
In July, MASC reported that provincial soybean acres will be around 1.89 million, which is a drop of about 327,000 acres from 2017, when Manitoba farmers seeded 2.26 million acres.
The decline represents the first time in more than a decade that soybean acres dropped in Manitoba. It’s possible acres will rebound next year, but the summer of 2017 could stick in farmers’ memories for a while.
“The way we’ve been thinking about it is that soybeans are the background. That’s why half the seeded acres (in eastern Manitoba) are in beans,” said Terry Buss, Manitoba Agriculture’s farm production specialist in Beausejour.
“(But) we went through quite an experience last year (with soybeans) and it’s just made people pause.”
Over the fall and winter, growers began to ask questions about soybeans and the role the crop played on their farm, such as, does it make economic sense to put 50 to 60 percent of acres into one crop, especially when that crop could struggle in a dry year?
“Who knows what the weather is going to be … but it was like, ‘I had lots of my eggs in that soybean basket, and my other baskets did better (in 2017),’ ” Buss said.
“Maybe I’ll shuffle some of those eggs to the other basket.”
Manitoba soybean yields were below average in 2017 and significantly lower than previous years, when many producers generated yields in the 40s and low 50s. Lack of rain in July and August was the principle reason for poor yields, but other factors are making it more difficult for farmers to grow beans in eastern Manitoba.
Years of tight rotations have amplified disease pressure, and growers may have depleted soil fertility because some relied too heavily on soybeans’ ability to fix nitrogen.
Also, weed control is no longer a simple matter of spraying glyphosate once or twice during the growing season. Producers once used Group 2 herbicides to kill volunteer canola with tolerance to Roundup, but now the volunteer canola can contain resistance to Group 2 products.
“We have canola that’s resistant to both (glyphosate and a Group 2),” Buss said.
“Then that becomes more difficult to control.”
Plus, the area may have giant ragweed with resistance to glyphosate. That hasn’t been officially confirmed, but the prospect is scary for growers because the weed can reach three to four metres in height.
The threat of a dry summer, combined with more challenging agronomics, may have dampened enthusiasm for soybeans. Farmers will continue to grow soybeans, but they may think more about rotation, Buss said.
“If you think of (regions) that get into one crop, of any kind, eventually that system lets us down in a major way,” he said.
“If you just go, ‘beans are the winner … beans are the answer,’ that’s not really using your brain very much.”
Daryl Domitruk, Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers director of research and production, agreed that farmers cannot rely on one crop for profitability.
“Soybeans do work in a large part of Manitoba … but that’s not going to be sustained if they aren’t grown in a balanced, sustainable rotation,” he said.
“This is where I think, particularly growers in eastern Manitoba, are now shifting to a balanced rotation. Maybe (things) got out of balance a little bit.”
If growers reduce the percentage of soybeans in their rotation, it will slow acreage growth in the province. Some experts predicted that Manitoba soybean acres could hit three million by 2022 or 2023 and possibly could overtake canola as the number one crop.
Even if that doesn’t happen, the emergence of soybeans as a major crop has changed agriculture in Manitoba.
“In my area, soybeans have been transformative,” Buss said. “Soybeans were one of the things that encouraged young people to come back to the farm.”