Low soybean protein researched in Manitoba

University of Manitoba scientists want to understand the influence of variety and climate on protein levels in the province

Western Canada’s soybean industry has a protein problem.

Soybeans grown in Manitoba and Saskatchewan have lower protein levels than soybeans from Ontario and southern parts of North America, and much lower than South American beans.

International buyers will discount the value of soybeans from Western Canada if they don’t meet a certain protein level, usually 33 to 34 percent, based on 13 percent moisture.

There is greater risk of shipment rejection at levels of 33 percent and lower.

This fall, based on preliminary data from the Canadian Grain Commission, the average protein level of Manitoba soybeans was 32.5 percent, with a range from about 30 to 37 percent. That’s better than 2019, when soy protein levels in Western Canada were around 31.9 percent. Levels in Ontario the last two years were 33 percent in 2020 and 33.6 percent in 2019.

An employee with a major grain company said the protein deficiency of Manitoba and Saskatchewan soybeans is a massive headache for exporters.

“We have this problem year after year. It’s getting worse…. Marketing Canadian beans is just becoming more difficult all the time,” he said. “This lack of protein is a major issue…. We’re one to two percent actual lower than (beans from Brazil or the United States Midwest).”

The Western Producer isn’t naming the company representative because he didn’t have permission to speak with the media.

Grain companies in Western Canada usually blend higher protein beans from Manitoba’s Red River Valley with lower protein soy from western Manitoba and Saskatchewan. But all that does is “dilute” the quality of western Canadian soybeans, the company rep said.

Soybean protein isn’t a concern just in Western Canada. It’s also an issue in Minnesota and the Dakotas. There’s a south to north gradient in North America, where protein declines as the climate gets cooler.

“We don’t have (all) the answers for that yet. Some people speculate it’s just a shorter growing season,” said Daryl Domitruk, Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers executive director.

Soy protein levels have been declining in most geographies because plant breeders have emphasized yield. As yield potential in the genetics goes up, protein goes down.

The soybean sector and breeders are responding, but introducing new varieties with better protein and solid yields won’t happen overnight.

“The plant breeding industry is tackling the overall protein issue by focusing selection a little bit more on protein,” Domitruk said.

“There are genetics out there that are higher protein, but are there actual varieties available? We haven’t been able to tell a grower that… (they should use) variety X because it will produce higher protein.”

While the broader industry works on soybean genetics, the MPSG and University of Manitoba scientists want to understand the influence of variety and climate on soy protein levels in the province.

“(We’re) taking all of the varieties grown in our regional variety tests … (and) looking for genetic and environment effects,” Domitruk said. “We’re doing this over three years at up to 12 locations.”

That will help identify key attributes in Manitoba soybeans, including crude protein and amino acids — the building blocks of protein.

Soybean associations in North Dakota and Minnesota have been trying to redefine soybean meal quality. They argue that northern soybeans have higher amounts of five critical amino acids, like lysine, which is a “better indicator of nutrition than crude protein,” says a MPSG article from 2019.

Manitoba’s soy industry is following the lead of Minnesota and North Dakota growers. The MPSG is funding feeding studies on swine and poultry to understand if livestock benefit from higher levels of the amino acids.

However, Manitoba’s soy sector is doing this research primarily for the local market; not for global buyers of soybeans.

“Not at the moment. We’re not yet trying to convince China that our soybeans are better,” Domitruk said. “(It’s) can we deliver more value locally.”

If the feeding studies produce a positive result, it could lead to a soybean crush plant in Manitoba. Right now, soybean meal fed to pigs and poultry in Manitoba comes from plants in the U.S. Midwest.

Building a crush plant would displace some of those imports.

“That’s the value proposition that we’re examining,” Domitruk said.

Down the road, maybe western Canadian farmers will have more options when it comes to soybeans. Breeders and companies might introduce higher protein varieties suitable for the export market. And there could be varieties with high levels of critical amino acids, which will be crushed locally.

Before that happens, the MPSG needs to generate the necessary data so Manitoba’s soy sector has the necessary information to solve its protein dilemma.

“I would say we’re approaching the halfway mark… in terms of explaining what’s happening,” Domitruk said. “So we know where we can move, in terms of production and the marketplace.”

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