Unless someone can prove otherwise, two agricultural experts believe the first U.S. soybean harvest of the year is currently taking place in South Texas.
Furthermore, yields are so high and advantages so numerous, they believe other South Texas growers should consider planting the legume.
“Our soybean crop in the Rio Grande Valley of a few thousand acres is just a tiny blip on the nation’s huge soybean crop, but those who plant it here do quite well,” said Brad Cowan, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agent for Hidalgo County. “Our soybean yields are outstanding. They require little or no insecticides and no expensive fertilizers. They can vastly improve a grower’s soil conditions, and in a market like we have now, there’s a tidy profit to be made.”
The South Texas soybean crop is primarily exported to Mexico for use as livestock feed, but its oil and beans also make their way into the human food chain, Cowan said.
“A record 84 million acres of soybeans were planted in the U.S. this year, making it one of the biggest crops in the country,” he said. “Most of it is used domestically, but the U.S. is a huge exporter of beans, which go all over the world. They are also sent from the Midwest into Mexico by the trainload.”
As cotton is common to the Lubbock area of Texas, soybeans are a staple in the Midwest where they are planted in rotation with corn, Cowan said.
“Corn takes a lot of nitrogen out of the soil,” he said. “Soybeans, a legume, ‘fix’ nitrogen, meaning they take nitrogen from the atmosphere and replace it into the soil. For South Texas growers, soybeans are a great rotation crop for sugarcane. Growers report that their sugarcane crops are very productive when planted in a field that had previously grown soybeans.”
Despite its advantages, soybean production here “just hasn’t caught on in a big way,” Cowan said. “But I think it has great potential, especially because our climate allows growers to plant two crops, one in the spring for summer harvest, and another planted in the summer for fall harvest.”
Soybean production in the semitropical climate of South Texas is only possible because of the development of Vernal, a variety adapted specifically to the area by Andy Scott, research director of Rio Farms Inc., a private agricultural research center in Monte Alto, near Weslaco, Cowan said.
“Andy Scott pioneered soybean production here,” he said. “Over the years, many had tried lots of varieties but soybeans are sensitive to daylight hours and they just couldn’t find one that worked here until Scott made it possible.”
To develop the variety, Scott said he collaborated with two scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, lead scientist Dr. Edgar Hartwig of Stoneville, Mississippi and Dr. Kuell Hinson of Gainsville, Florida.
“It was a collaborative effort,” Scott said. “They made the breeding crosses in Mississippi and Florida, and I made the variety selections here in the Valley. We were looking for traits favorable to production in lower latitudes, especially long juvenile traits which allow the plant to make decent size before flowering and setting the crop. That results in higher yields, and adaptation to the semi-tropics of South Texas.”
Vernal, is a “non-GMO,” or a non-genetically modified variety, meaning there has been no gene splicing to make it herbicide-ready, Scott said.
“Over time, subsequent genes in the variety have gotten a little stronger so that we’re now getting good commercial yields,” he said. “The state average yield, provided they get enough water, is 28 bushels per acre. It is commonplace for spring-planted soybeans to yield more than 40 bushels per acre.”
But as the Rio Grande Valley’s two- or three-week soybean summer harvest begins, yields appear to be significantly higher.
In the first field to be harvested, grower Gary Vanderpool’s 33 acres yielded 60.5 bushels per acre, more than double the state average, Scott said. He was able to contract the total production to Garcia Grain Trading of Donna at about $14 per bushel.
“Mr. Vanderpool grew that outstanding field without a single insecticide application,” he said. “I can’t say that all fields will be this way, but it’s safe to say that this soybean variety is a neighbor-friendly crop, as far as chemical sprays are concerned.
“Stink bugs are the crop’s main pest, and some growers may have to spray, but the spring crop involves a minimal use of insecticides, which is also great for the environment.”
Scott, who is the alternate director of Texas for the United Soybean Board, said U.S. farmers plant between 80 million and 90 million acres of corn annually and an equal amount of soybeans in rotation, making for a strong national agricultural practice.
“Soybeans are a sound, solid contributor to our nation’s economy, and with 60 percent of our crop going worldwide, it provides food for a lot of people,” he said. “Plus, soybeans provide the miracle of fixing nitrogen and improving the soil health of this country to help keep us strong, vibrant and well-fed nation.”
Scott said that in addition to soybeans’ many attributes, geography also plays a role in promoting its production by South Texas growers.
“A crop has no value if it can’t be marketed, if you don’t have a place to sell it,” he said. “Fortunately, one of the largest oil mills in Latin America, Regasa, is nearby, near Matamoros, across the river from Brownsville. Fortunately, there is a huge demand for soybeans, and growers here are now in a good position to take advantage of the proximity of the mill.”