With soybeans being an easier crop to grow than corn and typically offering a higher return, an increasing number of acres are being used to grow soybeans in Ohio, following a national trend.
In 2019, soybeans will cover the most acreage of any crop in the United States, surpassing corn and wheat for the first time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has projected.
Though once considered a corn state, Ohio grows more acres of soybeans than corn. And while soybean acres have been increasing in recent years, corn acres have been on the decline. Wheat acres too have been decreasing, to about half of what was grown a decade ago.
The trend toward soybeans seems natural. Farmers or any other business owner would pursue a path toward higher profits and less labor. However, if it means that farmers are less often rotating their soybean crops with corn or wheat or not rotating them at all, that could lead to higher disease rates, pests and lower crop yields.
The number of acres of corn planted in Ohio has been dropping since 2013, with the exception of 2015 and 2016, when the total acreage did not change. During the same period, the number of soybean acres planted in Ohio has increased every year.
Corn costs more to raise than soybeans, and the profits generally aren’t as good.
The average price per bushel of soybeans is higher than corn: $10.39 versus $4.08, said Barry Ward, leader of production business management for Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) at The Ohio State University.
“It comes down to economics,” Ward said. “Lower profits lead to more borrowing, and growers are wanting to borrow less.”
On average, the cost of seed, fertilizer and other expenses totals $370 per acre of corn, $200 per acre of soybeans, he said.
Also, corn tends to be a more labor-intensive crop to raise than soybeans. And with an increasing number of farmers growing crops while holding a full-time job, the less time it takes them, the better, said Harold Watters, an OSU Extension agronomy field specialist.
“They want to be able to jump on a tractor, pull a disc, plant some beans and then wait for harvest,” Watters said. “They want it to be easy.”
Growing corn typically requires more applications of weed killers and an application of fertilizer. For soybeans, fertilizer is typically not needed.
So, it might seem a no-brainer: Grow soybeans instead of corn. But there are other considerations. Generally, farmers alternate between soybeans and corn, so the same crop isn’t grown in the same field year after year, which reduces the crop yield. The corn-soybean rotation helps minimize crop diseases and pests. And the leaves, stems and stalks left over after a corn harvest can help prevent soil erosion.
Typically, the yield on corn and soybeans is higher when the crops are alternated on a given field. The yield for each crop will be five to 10 percent higher than if corn was grown on the same field year after year, Watters said.
But not all farmers rotate as much as they could to maximize yield, he said.
Annual decisions about what to plant and how much have become more important in recent years. That’s due to lower profits from corn and soybean sales and to farmers borrowing more money to cover the cost of putting out their crop, Ward said.
Across the United States, farm income is expected to be lower than it was in 2017, the USDA has projected. Still, the prospect for soybeans has been good in recent years. Soybeans are Ohio’s largest agricultural export, with much of them going to China, where soy is used to feed livestock, which in turn is meeting a growing demand for meat in the Chinese diet.