After Louisiana farmers last year produced a record amount of soybeans, crops are suffering this season beneath extreme summer weather that lurched from weeks of incessant downpours to a weekslong drought.
“We just had a poor season for soybeans,” LSU AgCenter soybean specialist Ronnie Levy said of the crops, which are weeks away from harvest.
About 11 inches of rain fell across the Acadiana area in April, a number about 7 inches higher than normal, according to the National Weather Service .
The heavy rains delayed planting and prevented young soybean plants — which usually penetrate more than a foot into the ground in search of water — from developing a strong root system. Overcast skies stole sunshine from the developing plants for almost the entire first half of the growing season, so farmers are seeing “shorter, smaller plants that don’t have the potential to produce as many soybeans,” Levy said.
Rainfall levels almost then doubled from the norm in May at an average of about 8 inches. And although the 7 inches that fell in June was an inch above average, the rain impacted already wet fields restricted by a planting deadline of mid-June.
Then came an unusually long dry spell.
Several weeks of hot and clear skies in July and most of August amounted to almost 5 inches of rain fewer than average for that time period. Because south Louisiana farmers generally don’t irrigate soybean fields that often double as flooded plots for rice or crawfish, the hot and dry conditions wreaked havoc on most plants.
“I’ve been doing this for 22 years now, and this is one of the dryer seasons that we’ve had. You’re looking at a very reduced bean crop,” Eunice agronomist Andre Fabacher, of the Sanders seed supply company, said as he stood beneath a sweltering, mid-August sun amid acres of wilting soybean plants.
On this particular farm on the edge of Eunice, the light brown soil was cracked and hard, with the underdeveloped plants creating a silver sheen across the field — evidence the plants are working to save themselves from a moisture-sucking sun by turning their leaves’ matte undersides to the sky.
At another 30-acre field just north, in the Evangeline Parish community of L’Anse Meg, a more dire situation: These plants, by mid-August, hadn’t seen rainfall for more than three weeks, and browned leaves complemented the field’s silvery look and underdeveloped bean pods.
Although not the case for all soybean fields — some fields are producing just fine — farmers in suffering fields risk losing 60 to 75 percent of their crops, with generous estimates showing potential yields of about 20 to 25 bushels of soybeans per acre, Fabacher said.
Compare that with 2014, when Louisiana soybean farmers led the nation with a record average of 57 bushels of soybeans per acre on a little more than 1.4 million acres — an amount higher than the 49 bushels per acre produced the year before and that outperformed the major soybean-producing “I States” of Indiana, Illinois and Iowa.
Soybeans are the second-most-planted field crop in the U.S. after corn, with production growing by 18 percent from 2013 to 2014 with a record 3.97 billion bushels harvested, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Of 31 soybean-producing states, Louisiana ranks 18th in soybean acreage and produced about 16 percent of the 2014 national total. The state’s soybean exports rank second in value, with soybean oil falling in fifth.
When mashed, the state’s soybeans produce a higher oil content than most other soybean-producing states, Fabacher said. Soybean oil is used for things like animal feed, vegetable oil and as a protein additive in meats, pastas and baked goods.
“If you’re eating margarine, you’re eating soybeans,” Fabacher said.
LSU AgCenter numbers from last year show growers planted more acres of soybeans than any other cultivated crop, a number that’s again risen with more than 1.5 million acres of soybeans planted in 2015.
The value of the Louisiana soybean market increased by 28 percent in 2014 to more than $1.1 billion.
Part of the increase comes from farmers making the switch to soybeans because of poor weather or economic conditions surrounding their usual crops, Levy said.
S ome cane farmers also made the switch after sugar prices in 2014 plummeted amid a flood of Mexican sugar.
Compared with last year’s soybean price of an average $12.50, prices this year are forecast between $8.40 and $9.90 per bushel, according to the USDA. But because yields are still projected at record highs for another year in a row, consumers are not expected to see a change for soybean-based products.
Fabacher said this year’s weak soybean crops are instead bad news for farmers, who will have to either make insurance claims, accept government aid or find some way to fill orders or extend contracts for crops that didn’t produce.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.