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USDA Predicts Record Soybean Crop as Drought Intensifies
Iowa Ag Connection - 08/11/2017

A record number of soybean acres planted this spring is projected to produce a record soybean harvest this fall despite challenging growing conditions across large sections of the Midwest.

This prediction was made today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture courtesy of its World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates and Crop Production reports.

U.S. soybean production was pegged at 4.38 billion bushels, an increase of 2 percent from last year's record setting output of 4.3 billion bushels. Harvested acres were projected at 88.7 million acres, up from 83.5 million in 2016.

The USDA's per-acre soybean production estimate of 49.4 bushels is 2.7 bushels less than last year, but 1.4 bushels more than last month's report.

The estimates were obtained by the USDA from scientific assessments of thousands of soybean fields located throughout the Midwest. The data compilation, completed Aug. 1, left some farmers scratching their heads and seeking their own opinions.

Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) member Colin Johnson grows soybeans near the southeast Iowa community of Batavia. He said in-field assessments in his area reveal tremendous crop stress and variability.

"I'm sitting in a three or four county area that's severely impacted. But how do you accurately assess crop yields when conditions vary every three to four miles?" he asked. "My best recommendation is to look past the reports and conduct your own risk management strategies daily."

The USDA survey involved a random sample of nearly 1,800 soybean fields across the Midwest. While the report involves considerable research and statistics, it may not tell the whole story, says ISA Market Development Director Grant Kimberley.

"The beans per pod and bean size are not taken into account," he said, adding that the USDA's Sept. 12 report should yield greater clarity.

ISA leaders and analysts say the large projected crop could shrink due to worsening drought conditions in key soybean growing regions, including Iowa and North and South Dakota. The three states account for more than 25 percent of the nation's soybean acres.

Iowa's soybean harvest is projected at 557 million bushels on a per-acre average of 56 bushels. This is down from last year's production of 572 million bushels and a 60.5 bushel-per-acre average.

Kimberley said crop conditions have deteriorated in many locations since the USDA completed its yield assessment. With short-term precipitation chances slim in many key soybean producing locations, the yield potential for corn and soybeans could be in retreat.

"When looking at today's numbers, farmers should keep in mind the USDA is only counting population and potential," he said. "The weather has to cooperate. Rains have been spotty and if that continues, yield estimates could go back down."

Iowa State University Extension Climatologist Elwynn Taylor said the robust soybean yield estimates are linked to the crop's resiliency.

"Soybeans are different from corn," he said. "From the day you plant corn, it's all about holding on to its potential. On the other hand, soybeans continue to grow roots after July and have a better chance of exploiting water that's available later in the growing season."

"All hope is not lost for the dry areas," he said.

More than half of Iowa -- largely north and east of a line stretching from Lyon County to Lee County -- is rated as abnormally dry or in moderate drought conditions. But Taylor expects August temperatures to give the crops a reprieve, at least temporarily.

"August heat will not be excessive, therefore the demand for water is somewhat reduced and we'll consider that a good thing," he said.

Precipitation chances remain lackluster, but that could change with the tropical storm season beginning to brew over the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.

"That could be a game-changer for the Midwest as low pressure systems push north creating instability and increased chances for precipitation," Taylor said.

Should weather cooperate and yield numbers hold, ISA leaders believe the demand will be there. Expected 2017-18 soybean exports were increased 75 million bushels while 2016-17 were increased 50 million. China continues to import record amounts of soybeans year over year.

"Demand is strong and has held really well even with the massive supply the last three to four years," Kimberley said. "Exports to China continue to grow to record levels every year and our recent trade mission to the country only strengthens our resolve that this will continue."

The mission Kimberley referred to included a delegation representing nearly every Iowa farm and commodity organization. ISA President Rolland Schnell of Newton joined the delegation and agrees with Kimberley's assessment.

"The message to farmers suffering from poor crop conditions is to hang on," Schnell said. "We need to have faith that the market will return because of places like China and the rest of the world having a demand for soybeans."

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