What happened to soybean acreage in the Deep South? Prices are good, planting conditions are better for later than early planted crops, and optimism seemed high back in March.

Crop updates released in early July by the USDA indicate a drop of about 200,000 acres of soybeans in the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama and Florida from the March USDA Planting Intentions Survey.

By far, the biggest reduction in actual planting versus, March planting intentions came in the Carolinas. South Carolina growers projected back in March to plant 510,000 acres of beans, but July plantings showed only 400,000 or so acres actually planted.

North Carolina growers estimated in March they would plant 1,490,000 acres of beans, which would have been down about 60,000 acres from 2010. They actually planted only 1,420,000 acres in 2011.

If demand drives price, then price fluctuations between March and planting time shouldn’t be the issue. Soybean prices have remained high from the March planting intention survey until planting season. In early July, soybeans sold for $13.28 per bushel, up about four percent from March and within 4 cents per bushel of the high prices for the year.

Not only have soybean prices remained high from last year’s harvest until this year’s planting, there is significant optimism that prices will remain high.

Late planting in the heart of U.S. soybean production areas and up and down production in South America doesn’t offer much hope of significantly raising world soybean stocks, which bodes well for prices.

A record soybean crop of over 70 million tons in Brazil was offset by lower than average yields in Argentina and other South American countries, except Uruguay.

Soybean producing countries in the Northern Hemisphere are looking at reduced production, based on delayed planting. The sum of world production should add up to longer-run high prices for soybeans.

Herb Vanderberry, director of ag statistics in North Carolina, says two factors play into the increased reduction of soybean acres: A good memory among farmers and dry weather.

Cotton was better

“Last year our growers had very similar planting season weather as they had this year and they only averaged 26 bushels of soybeans per acre. Cotton on the other hand was planted in the same conditions, but produced a near record yield.”

Vanderberry says the drop in soybean acreage is likely in part due to dry weather at wheat harvest time preventing growers from planting beans directly behind wheat. Had wheat harvest weather been more ideal, he says its likely more double-crop soybeans would have been planted in North Carolina.

While $13 a bushel for soybeans may equate to $1.20 per pound for cotton, the yield potential of both crops is not the same. No doubt, the big increase in cotton acreage is the primary reason soybean acreage in the Tar Heel state has dropped back to more traditional levels over the past couple of years.

Weather is always a trump card and planting conditions have not been good across much of the Southeast. Intense, often record-breaking heat from April through June and severe drought in some areas has significantly delayed planting of most crops.

Some areas of both North and South Carolina will likely break long-standing records of consecutive days with temperatures in excess of 90 degrees F.  Though sporadic rainfall across both states has improved soil moisture, high daytime temperatures have negated better soil conditions.

In eastern North Carolina, where cotton acreage was predicted to be up 35-40 percent, extended dry weather could have played a role in increasing soybean acreage — it didn’t.

A similar scenario may have also played out in parts of Virginia, where cotton acreage was projected to be up more than 40 percent.

Though weather may have cut soybean acreage, that scenario doesn’t seem to make much agronomic sense. Typically, full season beans are planted later than cotton, peanuts and most other crops grown in the Carolinas. Low soil moisture that delayed cotton and other crops throughout the two-state region was better later in the planting season in most areas.

Veteran North Carolina State University Soybean Specialist Jim Dunphy says, “A lot of the North Carolina crop, both full-season and double-crop, went in a little earlier than usual, mainly where they had rain and, therefore, adequate moisture to get the crop up and growing.” 

Significant pockets of the state, especially east of I-95, were dry enough that planting was later than usual as farmers waited for rain, and those beans will be pretty vulnerable to the weather, Dunphy says.

With soybean acreage already projected to be down slightly in 2011, supply of seed should not have been any problem. In fact, growers report a good supply and good prices for 2011 seed.

Seed quality is another issue, but again not one that typically influences such a dramatic drop in acreage from March Planning to June planting.

Dry fall weather beneficial

Dry fall weather is usually good for soybean seed producers because it lowers the levels of seed infection and improves seed germination and vigor. Last fall soybean seed dried too quickly in many fields, with moistures well below the ideal seed moisture for harvest of 13 to 14 percent.

Seed moistures of 7 percent or lower were not uncommon in areas from which Southeast soybean seed typically come. These low moistures make the seed very brittle and susceptible to seed coat damage.

Damage to seed coats can also increase leakage of nutrients from the seed, which after planting, may further lower seed vigor and increase disease pressure from soilborne pathogens. This could be a problem with late plantings (after June 1) where stressful planting conditions like high soil temperatures, low soil moisture, etc are encountered and lower seed vigor could lead to stand failure.

Poor quality seed could also open up soybean plants to more stress, including insect damage. Managing pest problems in beans worth more than $13 per bushel should be an economic no-brainer.

Dunphy says, August will be the month to be scouting for corn earworms and other pests. “Prior to blooming, I’d consider corn earworm to be a foliage feeder, and I’d allow 25-30 percent of the foliage to be consumed before I’d feel justified in spraying. I would not add an insecticide to another spray that was going out anyway unless the worms had reached the action threshold,” he says. 

The threat from Asian soybean rust is a real one and is more a concern for later planted beans. However, with the Sentinel plot system in place and fungicides available to prevent and/or cure the disease, this threat shouldn’t provide an economic basis to not plant soybeans.

As has happened the past few years, the spread northward of Asian soybean rust isn’t likely to be an issue on beans planted before June 1. Extreme heat and drought in northwest Florida and Georgia has significantly blunted the northward movement of causal fungi. Barring a hurricane or series of tropical storms, the disease most likely won’t reach the upper Southeast in time to do much damage.

If tropical weather fronts do move through the area, growers are urged to closely monitor Sentinel sites that are in place in multiple counties from Georgia northward. These sites are closely monitored by IPM specialists and plant pathologists at Land-Grant institutions and should give growers plenty of time to apply fungicides, if needed.

Charles Hall, executive director of the North Carolina Soybean Growers Association says he was expecting some reduction in soybean acreage this year. The 60,000 acre drop, which was reported in the USDA’s late March Planting Intentions Survey was about what he expected. The additional drop of 70,000 more acres was not expected, he adds.

Most North Carolina growers reported extremely dry planting conditions early in the planting season, but timely rains allowed most to get beans planted on time and the crop looks really good so far this year, Hall says.

With demand seemingly high well beyond the end of harvest this year, the outlook for non-contracted beans looks extremely good. Weather will be the trump card, but if current weather trends continue, growers should be able to produce yields above the past five year average.

rroberson@farmpress.com