Non-GMO Soybeans are a Numbers Game

Adam Chappell planted 2,000 acres of soybeans in June 2019 and estimates a 40-50% reduction in costs. ( Photo by Chris Bennett )

Pencil to paper, non-GMO soybeans mean profit for producer Adam Chappell. Non-GMO crops make up 90% of Chappell’s grain acreage, and he often sources low-cost seed from the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Soybean Breeding Program.

The Soybean Breeding Program has produced 59 varieties since its inception in 1990, and 22 varieties over the past 15 years. Steered in the laboratory by soybean breeder Leandro Mozzoni, and managed in the rows by Extension soybean specialist Jeremy Ross, the program continues to provide growers with options and avenues toward profit.

“All About Profitability”

Just outside the tiny town of Cotton Plant—80 miles west of the Mississippi River, riding a sandy ridge between the Cache River and Bayou DeView bottoms, Chappell and his brother, Seth, grow corn, cotton, rice, soybeans and a mix of small grains on 8,000 acres.

(For details about Chappell’s operation, see A Skeptical Farmer's Monster Message on Profitability)

Cotton Plant and its surrounding area in Woodruff County gained infamy over the past decade as a hot zone of Palmer amaranth packing multiple modes of resistance. In 2009, Chappell began smothering pigweed presence with cover crops, and the efficacy of the cover mat opened the door to conventional soybeans.

“Non-GMO is all about profitability,” Chappell explains. “Take a public soybean like UA 5014C that yields so well and can be saved. The next year, the only costs you’ve got are whatever the market value of the soybean seed is and getting it custom cleaned. If beans are $9, you might be looking at $12-13...On the backside, you can get $1-2 above Chicago for that bushel of non-GMO beans, but if you’re growing a GMO, you take them to the river and get Chicago minus the basis.”

Chappell planted 2,000 acres of soybeans in June 2019 and estimates a 40-50% reduction in costs. Seed expense of public conventional varieties and self-treatment was $12 per acre. After minimal insect treatments and weed sprays, he hit yields in the mid-60s.

Numbers Game

The first question soybean specialist Jeremy Ross typically gets from curious growers about conventional soybeans is expected: What is the yield? The numbers are steadily mid-pack in testing. “Overall, our soybean varieties are not bin busters, but they’re sure middle to better-than-middle on yield,” he describes.

Ross emphasizes that conventional soybean varieties—as with any crop—are a numbers game. “There are several reasons why people look to conventionals,” Ross explains. “First, it’s the low seed cost. Seed for Division of Agriculture conventionals is about half of major company prices. We’re talking $30-$35 per bag of non-GMO, compared with up to $75 for an industry, traited variety. Second, it’s the seed saving advantage. That’s real money, and over a couple years, it starts to add up.”

However, Ross points out the challenges of weed control and necessity of timely herbicide applications. “If you’ve got bad pigweed issues on a field, they’ll be tough to control. Miss a pre-emerge application and get a big flush of pigweed, and you’ll be really limited on post options. I caution people to be timely, and prefer not to plant non-GMOs on problematic fields. But we have a host of producers doing very well with conventionals. It’s very doable, but does take more attention.”

Ross cites Chappell’s weed management as indicative of potential non-GMO success. “Cotton Plant was an original epicenter of herbicide-resistant pigweed. In areas, it was so bad you could drive through and see nothing but solid pigweeds in some fields. Adam has done very well, and changed up the way he farmed by teaming conventionals with cover crops.”

In 2020, Arkansas growers planted roughly 2.95 million soybean acres, and Ross estimates 5% of the acreage is in conventional varieties. Yet, grower interest remains steady, partially driven by potential premiums: “You can tack on 50 cents or $1.50 on market price and that’s attractive to anyone. Factor seed cost, seed saving, and the premium—and you’re getting into some competitive numbers. Farmers can do very well on conventionals, but again, you have to stay tight on the applications.”

Group IVs on Horizon

Leandro Mozzoni, in his role as Division of Agriculture soybean breeder, hears a consistent question from growers: When will Maturity Group IV conventional soybeans be available? When Mozzoni took the helm as the Division’s soybean breeder in 2017, Group IVs were already anticipated. Three Group IV lines were tested in Arkansas in 2019, as well as testing in Costa Rica over the winter of 2019-2020. Currently, Mozzoni is testing the three Group IV lines in trials across a handful of states: Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. “We’ll have the harvest data this fall, and if we continue to get favorable results, we’ll move forward. We’re closer than ever with those lines,” he says.

A conventional soybean variety typically takes seven to 10 years to reach market. The Division of Agriculture’s Soybean Breeding Program is directed toward conventional and glyphosate-resistant varieties, with 80% of efforts aimed at conventionals. “All our checks are against industry traited varieties,” Mozzoni says. “That’s how we advance our material and it’s a high bar. Sometimes we meet it and sometimes we get close, and we’re looking at an opportunity to modernize with other herbicide traits.”

Mozzoni emphasizes the strong interest from growers toward conventional seed opportunities. “Farmer interest is why we’re exploring more herbicide traits. If we get access to a herbicide stack, we’ll be able to serve even more farmers.”  

For more information on varieties, contact Jeremy Ross or visit Arkansas Soybean Varieties or Division of Agriculture Variety Testing Programs at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station.

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