The first step in solving a problem is publicly admitting it.
Canada’s soybean industry has taken the first step. It is publicly acknowledging that Canada has a problem with low protein soybeans and something needs to be done.
Soy Canada, which represents growers, processors, seed companies and exporters, conducted a risk assessment this year to address threats to the industry.
The report said low protein soybeans are major risk.
“Soy Canada is already prioritizing its resources on addressing the top two risks that were identified … market access and protein content,” said Ron Davidson, Soy Canada executive director.
Soybean crushers need beans with a certain percentage of protein to produce soybean meal with a sufficient amount of protein. The minimum is about 34 percent, but a higher percentage is preferable.
In North America, soybean protein levels vary with geography. Protein levels are higher in southern states and lower in the northern Plains.
Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) data show that there are distinct differences in Canada.
In 2017, the average protein content was 39.4 percent for Ontario, 37.4 percent for Manitoba and 36.1 percent for Saskatchewan.
In 2017, most Manitoba soybeans were above the 34 percent threshold, but some CGC samples tested at 33 percent.
That’s a problem because buyers may reject those beans, or will only buy them at a discount.
“It (protein) is not as much of an issue here in Ontario,” said Mark Huston, Soy Canada director and a farmer from Thamesville, Ont.
Low protein is primarily a challenge in Western Canada, he added.
A decade ago, when Manitoba had less than a million acres of soybeans and Saskatchewan had almost none, it was easier to dismiss the protein issue because western Canadian beans could be blended with higher protein soybeans.
In 2017, the two prairie provinces had more than three million acres. The much larger volume of lower protein beans can no longer be ignored.
In February, Viterra announced a price schedule for protein, where soybeans below 33 percent could face a $9 per tonne discount and beans below 32 percent may be rejected.
That’s one of the reasons why Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers is studying the protein problem.
“There are a lot of opinions and anecdotes and discussion within the industry as to what the cause is and what the economic implications are (of low protein),” said Daryl Domitruk, MPSG director of research and production.
The MPSG has contracted a University of Manitoba economist to write a report on lower protein beans and the financial consequences for Manitoba growers.
“Most Manitoba soybeans, (it) is our understanding that we’re above the threshold,” Domitruk said. “(But) if you’re going below 34 (percent), you’re jeopardizing the exportability of your crop.”
Once they have a handle on the economic impact, the next step is to identify potential solutions.
The obvious solution is to develop soybean varieties with higher protein.
But that comes with a cost. Higher protein equals lower yield.
“The trick will be how much you would have to genetically boost protein to make soybeans in Western Canada a little safer,” said Elroy Cober, Agriculture Canada soybean breeder in Ottawa.
“And what the yield cost might be, and whether it’s worth it.”
Canadian farmers probably aren’t interested in a low-yielding, high-protein variety, but plant scientists need to pay more attention to protein.
“One of the things we wanted to flag with breeders is that (protein) is a big issue,” Huston said. “If you have a variety that looks good on yield but doesn’t look good on protein (that’s a problem).”
The MPSG plans to study other factors that may affect protein levels, including things like the choice of inoculant.
“We’re assuming there could be agronomic decisions a farmer could make to reduce the risk … of going below a protein threshold,” Domitruk said.
But first, they need to understand the financial impact of low protein on western Canadian farmers.
That report will likely be released in the fall or next winter.