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US soybean farmers look to identify improved pig feed value

Like crop farmers across the world, U.S. soybean growers choose varieties they plant primarily based on yield potential and defensive traits that determine productivity.


Like crop farmers across the world, U.S. soybean growers choose varieties they plant primarily based on yield potential and defensive traits that determine productivity.

But their customers in the U.S. and internationally who feed pigs and other livestock are more interested in soybean quality, not yield.

To bridge the space between seed yield and feed quality needs, the HY+Q (High Yield PLUS Quality) program sponsored by the Illinois Soybean Association checkoff program is looking at variety-level value from the livestock customers’ perspective. The goal is to identify soybean varieties with enhanced feed value – and encourage growers to plant them. Checkoff studies show that will increase the value and competitiveness of U.S. soybeans, and will still yield well for producers.

Soybean quality surveys show soybean companies already have notable feed value and high yield in their commercial varieties today, says Linda Kull, Ph.D., director of strategic research programs for the Illinois Soybean Association (ISA).

“HY+Q identifies high-quality varieties and encourages farmers to also consider soybean quality to help increase soybean value and demand,” she says. “HY+Q also supports continuous improvement in soybean genetics that benefits everybody in the value chain, from soybean growers to livestock feeders. Maximum quality gives U.S. soybean growers and their livestock customers mutual benefits in profitability and production efficiency.”

Measuring customer-based value

As they sought to capture soybean growers’ interest in improving value, HY+Q program coordinators decided to look at soybean value as pig producers do. They asked whether typical soybean constituents such as protein and oil were the most accurate measures of quality and value to livestock producers.

To pinpoint soybean value for pigs, they consulted Bart Borg, Ph.D., director of nutrition with Standard Nutrition Services (SNS), an independent U.S. livestock nutrition consulting firm and pork producer. Before joining SNS, Borg was in charge of nutrition and feed milling for Murphy Brown Western Operations, now part of Smithfield Hog Production, the world’s largest pork producer.

Borg confirmed that soybean meal can have substantially different value, depending primarily on its amino acid makeup. While this tends to be correlated to protein levels, the most important driver of value in pig feed is the volume of individual amino acids.

“Amino acid levels are decisive when we compare soybean meals and formulate least-cost rations,” says Borg. “The way we formulate pig diets, we don’t consider the level of crude protein. We look only at the individual amino acids to develop diets based primarily on the ideal protein concept.”

This approach not only identifies soybean varieties that can optimize feed costs, but also has positive environmental benefits, because pigs excrete less nitrogen, says Borg.

To help the checkoff pinpoint potential value differences in soybean varieties, Borg used ration-formulation software (in this case, from Dalex Livestock Solutions L.L.C.) to compare “theoretical” soybean meal. The meal was theoretical in that its constituents were calculated using the U.S. United Soybean Board (USB) Estimated Processed Value (EPV) calculator to mathematically simulate meal constituents.

This allowed Borg to compare “meal” from representative soybean samples from the 2016 crop submitted by farmers from across the U.S. The samples had been analyzed for crude protein, oil and amino acids. This provided the raw data needed to calculate theoretical soybean meal values.

“This exercise showed that with a corn-soybean meal diet, feed cost varied by up to $3 per head over the finishing period based on quality differences, including the amino acid levels,” says Borg. “That difference is huge, and could be the difference between profit and loss in today’s U.S. pork market.”

“Isoleucine and valine were the big value drivers,” notes Borg. Unlike the amino acids lysine, methionine and several others, which have cost-competitive crystalline alternatives, synthetic versions of isoleucine and valine are either unavailable commercially or sold at prices that are higher than the cost of soybean meal, he says.

A new customer value report

After Borg’s confirmation that soybean varieties commonly grown in the U.S. offer vastly different value to pig rations, HY+Q Program Lead John Osthus worked with University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-M) scientists to validate the approach and develop a statistical model to predict value differences across soybean varieties.

That work is supporting the development of a soybean sample-level customer value report that incorporates nine value components, including crude protein, meal, oil and the seven amino acids commonly used when formulating swine diets, including lysine, cystine, methionine, threonine, tryptophan, isoleucine and valine.

“We wanted to take these nine constituents and convert them into a single number that can easily communicate value to soybean breeders and growers,” says Shawn Conley, Ph.D., a UW-M crop production specialist. “This not only helps U.S. farmers grow high-yielding, high-value soybeans, it moves the discussion to seed companies so that they know which soybean lines in their breeding programs have higher nutritional value.”

The customer value report was made possible starting with work by Spyros Mourtzinis, Ph.D., a UW-M researcher and statistician. He used a multivariate statistical analysis technique called Principal Component Analysis (PCA), to transform the nine quality variables into a single number that was used to sort samples. He then used multiple linear regression analysis to create a statistical model to quickly evaluate large numbers of soybean varieties for their value.

“We have now tested the model with 8,282 soybean varieties grown in every maturity zone in the U.S.,” says Mourtzinis. “The more varieties we run through the model, the more certain we are that our model is valid in estimating soybean feed value.”

When the statistical value calculations were compared with what Borg found in the feed software, the values showed a near-perfect agreement.

Continuing value advancements

ISA’s Kull says the progress toward a customer value report already is helping the HY+Q program make progress in conversations with soybean genetics companies and soybean growers. About 500 farmers visited after receiving a postcard with a special code to compare their confidential soybean sample results for protein, amino acids and oil, she reports. Even more traffic is expected when the site is updated to include the new value report.

The concept also has attracted attention from the U.S. pig industry. Raising the quality and feed value of soybeans would be a “win-win” for U.S. pig and soybean producers, says Chris Hostetler, Ph.D., director of animal science for the National Pork Board, a U.S. pig industry group.

“This is exciting news that begins to allow us to estimate the feeding value of individual varieties,” says Hostetler, who says the Pork Board will consider funding feeding trials to validate the nutritional differences between soybean meals from high- or low-value soybeans.

“Ultimately, if feed trials prove there is a difference in real-world feeding costs as estimated in the HY+Q finishing cost comparison, that would go a long way to convince pork producers that this is a real thing,” he says.

“Focusing on value from the end-user’s perspective is important to all the groups we work with to improve quality,” adds Kull.

What helps capture attention is when value becomes visible, she says. “If it were possible for every customer to get the highest-value soybeans in their meal, the nutritional difference could amount to $300 million in potential value in the U.S. swine market,” she adds.

HY+Q will expand its customer value report concept in the coming months by including poultry nutritional needs in the report. It also plans to import additional data from the 2017 U.S. soybean crop when it is available, as well as data from earlier crops, to further refine and validate the model.

“We are convinced seeing value like livestock customers do is the way forward for improving the value of U.S. soybeans,” Kull says. “Growing high quality soybeans for the livestock industry can give U.S. soybean producers a competitive advantage in the long term as we better serve customers around the world.”

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