⋅BY RYAN McGEENEY ⋅
U of A System Division of Agriculture
After any three consecutive years of soybean farming in the Mid-South, it’s going to take more than one Biblical plague to make an impression on the pros.
Speaking to more than 100 growers, consultants and other agriculture industry professionals in early January, Jeremy Ross, extension soybean agronomist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, was duly undaunted.
“Two years ago, we had the flood, and last year we had the drought, so I’m trying to imagine which of the remaining plagues we’re going to have for 2023,” Ross said. “We’ve already had locusts and flies.”
Ross led the 2023 Tri-State Soybean Conference, an annual meeting involving soybean production experts from Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The conference returned to the Natural State, with Arkansas hosting the meeting in Dumas on Jan. 6.
“This past year, we had 3.18 million acres planted,” Ross said. “The rain made it hard to plant early in the season, but once it dried up, we really got going. Drought really affected us, especially the eastern part of the state, and a lot of farmers struggled, trying to push that irrigation for rice, so soybeans kind of took a back seat.
“But once we got into harvest, I think this was the quickest harvest I’ve seen in my 20-plus years,” he said.
The annual conference gives agronomists, researchers and other experts an opportunity to not only assess the recent production season, but pass on lessons learned and prognostications as well.
An eye on Brazil
Hunter Biram, extension economist for the Division of Agriculture said that if there was a single phrase to sum up the forecast for the 2023 soybean market, it might be “keep an eye on Brazil.”
While drought has affected key soybean-growing regions in the South American country, Brazilian growers are still on track for a record year, he said.
“As long as there is a little bit of rain Brazil will have that record yield everyone is talking about. A little bit of rain is going to go a long way for them.”
Brazil is the world’s leading soybean exporter, with 53 percent of the market. The United States is second, with a 35 percent share.
“They’re well over 100 million acres harvested now, and their harvest continues to go up every single year,” he said. “If they do have that record year, I believe global soybean stocks will be up, which will then depress the global soybean price, and we’ll start to feel that at home, too. We always hover around that futures price. It’s a good reference for local prices, too.”
Biram said that behind Brazil, the second leading factor likely to affect U.S. soybean growers are the bevy of production risks, from insect pressure to climate curveballs.
“Last year, we had a quiet hurricane year,” he said. “I’m not a meteorologist, I’m not about to predict that hurricanes are about to happen, but it’s a production risk we face, here in the Delta. Being that last year was quiet, my gut tells me we need to be prepared for something. It just takes one hurricane to wipe out a crop.”
Finally, Biram said the third factor in play is a potential new U.S. Farm Bill. Although the federal Farm Bill is ostensibly renegotiated every five years, it has rarely held to that schedule.
“Let’s say we do actually get a bill — the No. 1 thing I’m concerned about is base acre reallocation. Base acres are different than planted acres — base acres are acres that receive program payments,” such as those provided by Agricultural Risk Coverage or Price Loss Coverage.
“We do a lot of ARC and PLC in Arkansas — we have a lot of base acres — so there’s a lot of potential support that may be lost for the farmers right now, who are facing tough conditions,” Biram said.
Trent Roberts, extension soil fertility specialist for the Division of Agriculture, said that much of what soybean growers in Arkansas and its neighboring states battled in 2022 is known as “hidden hunger,” a term Robert uses to describe potassium deficiency in the plant, limiting production potential — and, by extension, profitability.
“When we get into the arena of fertilization practices and nutrient management, the elephant in the room is the historically high fertilizer price,” Roberts said. “Over the past 18-24 months, we’ve seen the highest potash fertilizer prices in history — and potash is typically the highest input cost for soybean production.”
But because reducing the potash input is among the worst options available to growers, Roberts said he and his fellow extension experts are hoping to give growers the best chance they can get to play whatever hand they’re dealt year to year.
“With potash being our largest input cost, we’re trying to give producers as much info as we can to effectively manage that input.”
That includes a potash rate calculator, designed to give growers a profit-maximizing K fertilization rate, and new tissue sampling techniques meant to be employed mid-season.
“It allows farmers to identify whether or not their fertilization program is adequate, or would benefit from additional fertilizer,” he said.
Irrigation: Not if, but when
Mike Hamilton, extension irrigation educator for the Division of Agriculture, said that much of what makes up the “best management practices” in irrigation comes down to scheduling — but in a drought year, it’s hard to play by that book.
“In ’22, scheduling wasn’t much of an issue, because we could only get to it when we could feasibly get to it,” Hamilton said. “We were so tapped, trying to get caught up — we were behind. We didn’t turn irrigation equipment off unless we needed to do maintenance.”
The labor shortages and supply chain issues that continue to haunt and hinder the global economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic created an additional stumbling block for irrigators, Hamilton said.
“If something went down, it would be two or three weeks before we could get the labor to come do it, and then we’d need to wait on parts, because the supply chain was pitiful,” he said.
Overall, Hamilton said, the vast majority of soybean growers in the region are already at the top of their game, in terms of employing technology and available resources. He’s not worried about turning bad farmers into decent farmers — he’s trying to help the good ones become even better.
“We’re to the point now where our farmers are top-notch,” Hamilton said. “But we need to get that 1 percent improvement when we can. We want to introduce these water management practices and devices that can help them save a dollar, save a round of irrigation, prevent tubing ruptures, and so on.
Eyes in the sky, sensors on the ground
The use of drones in modern agriculture was a hot topic for several of the conference’s presenters, including both Hamilton and extension application specialist Jason Davis.
“I can fly a drone over a field that you wouldn’t want to drive through,” Hamilton said. “I can get you elevation within 1.2 inches — a tenth of a foot. Newer drones will get to within a half-inch. It’s just amazing.”
Davis said the introduction of artificial intelligence into agriculture may arrive sooner than many outside — or even inside — the industry imagine. John Deere’s See & Spray Ultimate technology, for example, will soon become commercially available after years of research and development. The technology incorporates machine learning to allow tractors with pesticide application booms to target individual weeds, rather than simply broadcast a pesticide over an entire field.
“The artificial intelligence merger into agriculture is very much happening,” Davis said. “It’s probably going to make a huge impact in coming seasons. With Deere’s See & Spray Ultimate is likely to have limited adoption in 2023 because of limited availability.”
Davis said that in less than a decade, artificial intelligence-based technologies will likely offer increasing savings in labor and pesticides.
“I expect to start seeing more intelligent, site-specific management of crops,” he said. “Whether that’s informed by drones, or real-time, in situ collection on sprayers or harvest machinery, we’re going to start seeing more and more automated, fully-AI systems that are making decisions on each individual square meter. Where we would normally see a broadcast application of a pesticide, for example, we might see only 10 percent of a field treated.
“There are a lot of exciting developments around the corner,” he said.
As the technology continues to develop, artificial intelligence may not only detect where additional irrigation is needed, it may trigger that irrigation as well.
“The next step is to use moisture sensors to not only trigger an irrigation, but to turn on the water source as well,” Hamilton said. “That’s an idea that’s going to take some time to get comfortable with. It feels far-fetched. But it’s coming.”
Hamilton said that irrigation — and the very availability of water to do it adequately — will likely become an increasingly pressing issue for agriculture in the coming years.
“There are going to be some restrictions on our water use one of these days,” Hamilton said. “Mississippi’s already starting to monitor overall agricultural water use, and I know a bunch of other states are restricting water use. It’s coming.
“Nobody wants to go there, but it’s inevitable,” he said.