Today, most soybeans are processed to separate the oil from the high-protein meal fraction. These two 'co-products' make the seed valuable to the end user and make the soybean a profitable crop for U.S. producers.

The protein content of the soybean impacts the protein content of the soybean meal, and end users pay a premium for high-protein meal. Because these premiums get passed down through the value chain, higher-protein soybeans command a premium at the first point of sale, the local elevator. Normally, producers don't see this price differential because long-term variation in soybean quality is built into the local price as a part of the basis.

Occasionally, local protein levels can dip low enough that grain handlers begin docking for low-protein soybeans delivered to local elevators. This occurred in an area in south central Minnesota in the fall of 2011. There, many farmers accepted a 15-cent per bushel penalty for low-protein soybeans.

Soybeans grown in the northern and western ranges of the U.S. Corn Belt tend to have lower protein than soybeans grown elsewhere in the U.S. or in South America. This puts farmers in Minnesota and the Dakotas at risk of being penalized for low protein levels, but what can be done?

Farmers can have a direct impact on the quality of the grain that they sell in the fall by selecting the higher-protein lines from among the top-yielding varieties available. Because it is not always easy to identify high-yielding varieties with high-protein seed, it is critical for U.S. producers to educate end-users about other positive attributes of northern grown soybeans.

With the support of soybean checkoff organizations from Minnesota, South and North Dakota, University of Minnesota researchers have shown that the protein fraction from northern grown soybeans tends to be slightly enriched in the amino acids most important to swine and poultry.

While there may be less protein overall, it appears to be of a greater quality than once thought. In addition, there appears to be other minor constituents in the seed of northern grown soybeans that provide additional value to the end user. Researchers are currently quantifying these additional factors.

Farm leaders from Minnesota and the Dakotas will travel with me—a soybean agronomist with University of Minnesota Extension—to the Philippines, Thailand and China in March to educate end-users about the positive attributes of northern grown soybeans. If nutritionists can look beyond crude protein as a measure of quality, Minnesota farmers should soon see increased prices for their soybeans at market.

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