The problem is, soybean production has significantly declined in the South and shifted to the Midwest, where protein levels are lower. Even before the acreage shift, protein levels were declining in soybeans.

The initiative, announced at the 2003 Commodity Classic in Charlotte, N.C., aims to encourage farmers, especially in the upper Midwest, to shift the focus toward protein and oil levels in addition to yield when picking varieties.

Jim Dunphy, North Carolina State Extension soybean specialist, says the initiative could benefit southern producers. Protein levels in southern-grown soybeans range around 37 percent. A shift in breeding programs toward higher protein levels, as well as yields, could also benefit such states as North Carolina, since North Carolina State recently released a high-protein line named Prolina. The emphasis on protein levels could also mean more markets for Southeastern soybeans, Dunphy says.

Nationwide, protein levels in soybeans average 34 percent. In North Dakota, soybeans that had a 31.5 percent protein level were discounted for the first time last season.

Protein levels pose a threat to U.S. soybean markets both domestically and internationally, because of crop expansion in South America, says David Durham, USB chairman. "South America is already producing more soybeans than the U.S. and is projected to double its acreage in the next decade. The new South American production areas are closer to the equator and protein levels are up.

Many domestic and international customers demand soybeans that produce high soybean meal, says Durham.

Already six months into the check-off funded initiative, the USB has been working with seed companies and processors emphasizing protein and oil levels in varieties. The USB is working on economic incentive plans that would add value to both producers and processors. Currently, two or three processors pay a premium for higher protein levels in soybeans, Durham says. "The industry has already begun to pay premiums on their own." Having processors, as well as seed companies involved will allow the three-year initiative to cover more ground in a shorter amount of time.

The Hardin, Mo., farmer sees variety selection as the key. "Hopefully, we can have all regions going to high-protein levels if we can establish reasonable values," Durham says. Up until now, the only incentive for soybean producers has been yield. "Farmer have to produce for yield, but more and more there’s the need to increase protein levels," says John Becherer, USB chief executive officer. "The focus on yield was such a strong force that protein wasn’t looked at as much."

Durham sees quality and composition as a way for U.S. growers to compete in the global market. "We have to figure out a incentive paradigm for yield and quality."

Historically, the processing industry has used protein as one of the characteristics to judge quality, but has mixed soybeans of various protein levels to get the quality required. "I don’t really recognize I’m being discounted," Durham says.

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com