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Hy+Q Initiative Aims to Boost Soybean Protein Values

Every soybean looks the same on the outside. But not all soybeans are created equal. 

Every soybean looks the same, whether it’s in a combine bin, semitrailer, railcar, or river barge. But not all soybeans are created equal. 

Some varieties, the Illinois Soybean Association has found, have higher quality traits than others – yet still yield nearly as high as those with lower quality traits. 

However, when farmers grow lesser quality soybeans, the value of the end-product is diminished. That’s why the Illinois Soybean Association (ISA) has started the High Yield Plus Quality Program (HY+Q) funded by the soybean checkoff. 

The HY+Q initiative is a database that identifies yield and quality characteristics of many of the soybeans grown in the heart of soybean growing territory. The effort is to “inspire seed companies and farmers to care about quality and value,” says John Osthus, program lead for HY+Q. “We want to reframe the conversation and get people to care about quality.

“Farmers are losing money in ways they cannot control,” he continues. “We look at the Hy+Q program as a rescue mission.” 

The conundrum is that soybean farmers get paid for yield, yet the true value of soybeans comes from the amino acids and protein inside the bean – and this is a near-perfect feedstuff for swine and poultry. So the ISA is identifying those varieties that combine high yield with high feed value in hopes of capturing more value from end users.

As it stands, when farmers select varieties that contain only high-yield properties, end users supplement soybean meal with synthetic amino acids, compromising demand for soybeans. 

How Protein Has Declined

Since 2000, protein percent in U.S. soybeans has declined 2%, says Linda Kull, director of ag innovations and technology transfer at the ISA. At the same time, a drop in amino acid levels in U.S.-produced soybeans has resulted in lower livestock feed values and soybean meal being replaced by synthetic amino acids and corn by-products such as distillers’ dried grains with solubles (DDGS).

The net effect is potentially billions of dollars in revenue lost to the synthetics and/or by-products, the ISA reports. In one example alone, a company that finishes some 2.45 million head of hogs each year uses 156,000 fewer tons of soybean meal now than it did in 2000. That’s more than $50 million of lost market share each year due to lower quality soybeans. 

Because farmers get paid for yield, soybean breeders aim to provide growers what they want. But it’s a little like breeding racehorses: other attributes like bone density are compromised. 

“When you breed soybeans for yield, other things get sacrificed,” Kull says. “One thing we see sacrificed is protein.”

Yet, there are still soybean cultivars that contain high protein and high yield potential. The HY+Q program aims to find them, so that farmers can work collaboratively to gain back markets lost to synthetic feed additives. Right now, the HY+Q program has a database of 768 soybean varieties with rankings based on amino acids used by livestock nutritionists to calculate least-cost rations, the ISA says. Nutritional rankings are based on statistical analysis of more than 34,000 harvest samples from farmers and seed company trials over the past six years. 

The ISA project illustrates that there are hundreds of soybean varieties that don’t compromise yield for quality. These varieties are comingled with lesser quality soybeans. The Hi+Q initiative is intended to let farmers know the value of the soybeans they produce. 

“Growers who choose to plant one or more of these varieties are an integral part of increasing the market share and overall value of U.S. soybeans,” Kull says. 

Osthus adds that soybean growers can make a difference in soybean feed quality simply by the choice of variety they choose to grow. “You can’t see it in the elevator, but it matters,” he says. “We can’t just stand by and watch millions of dollars be lost.” 

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