Soya: the triple threat

Published 17th December 2021 | Press Releases

On paper, it’s difficult to argue against the reasons for growing soya in the UK. In fact, in many respects it’s the ideal crop with wide ranging advantages including nitrogen fixing and limited pest issues. And that’s before we even consider the profit margin, which is considerable. So why aren’t more farmers growing it? Is it worth steering away from the status quo and trying something new, and do the numbers stack up?

Soya production in the UK is a tale of thwarted ambition. The first attempts to produce a crop in the early 2000s didn’t get off the ground because soya was so cheap it wasn’t worth growing. By 2010, the introduction of the Single Farm Payment and a rising soya price raised hopes, but these were quickly thwarted by record wheat and oilseed rape prices.

“The area of peas grown in the UK from 2009 to 2013 dropped from 84,000ha down to 32,000ha,” says Soya UK Director David McNaughton. “And it was a similar situation with spring beans. So the idea of introducing a new spring break crop was a dead duck.

“Soya production only really began in the UK in 2014. That’s when the planets finally lined up – the wheat price came down to around £100 a tonne, rape prices came down too, commodities were generally low and the soya price was quite good. And people were looking for spring break crops because of the blackgrass issue.”

Interest in new break crops piqued and soya was back in the game. Yields gradually climbed year on year – 1,000 acres in 2017 became 4,000 acres in 2018 then 8,000 acres in 2019. But soya’s progress was then halted by that infamous British destroyer of dreams – the weather.

“We’ve had three incredibly bad harvests on the trot, which means soya copped a bit of reputational damage,” David says. “That’s frustrating because if you get an abysmal crop of spring beans no one says ‘I’ll never grow beans again’. With a new crop like soya, people tend to blame the crop rather than the weather.

Glass half full

“When wheat gets to £200 per tonne, farmers tend to fill up the farm with autumn wheat.   High cereal prices inevitably draw the barley price up too, so a lot of spring acreage goes into barley.  This means they tend to abandon spring break crops such as pulses,” says David.

“As a new spring break crop, we’re trying to overcome that natural reticence people have about trying something new. We’re also trying to overcome the fact that market forces take away people’s incentive to try something new.”

However, despite the challenges in establishing British soya production, David is optimistic

for the future. And, when you consider soya’s global projections it’s not difficult to understand why.

“The amount of soya the UK imports every year is staggering,” he explains. “3.5 million tonnes in total, 3.3 million tonnes of which is destined for animal feed. The market potential is humungous.

“We could fill up the entire southern half of England with soya production and still have plenty of market to go at.”

In the long-term, prospects for soya look strong and the price continues to rise, with no signs of stopping anytime soon.

“This is because there’s a fundamental lack of protein on the world market,” he said.

As more and more countries become intense importers of soya, demand will only increase. The diet of the average citizen in China now includes much more meat than it did previously, and this is projected to rise even further. David estimates that in the next 20 years, their demand for soya alone will be around 180 million tonnes every year.

“Consumption of soya is accelerating more rapidly than production,” he explains. “And that means that we’re seeing a long-term climb in the soya price. In 2007, soya was £170 a tonne. Today, it’s at least £350, if not £400 a tonne.”

And UK-produced beans demand a premium, so British growers stand to make even more profit. “UK-grown beans are non-GM and have Red Tractor traceability, which means our beans are Hard IP (Identity Preserved) beans rather than World Market beans. Those demand a premium – currently it stands at between £70-90 a tonne more.”

Other advantages

The benefits of growing soya don’t stop at the bottom line. It requires less chemistry than other crops such as wheat and oilseed rape, with the latter suffering particularly from the banning of neonicotinoids in 2018.

Soya fixes its own nitrogen and interrupts the growth cycle of blackgrass, preventing it from becoming established. Rotating wheat and soya is thought to be one of the best interventions available for controlling this weed. It has no serious pest issues either – pigeons alone can be a nuisance, but only for three weeks while the crop establishes. Keep them off for that time period and the soya develops crinkly and hairy leaves which act as a natural deterrent.

“We’ve talked about the negatives because they’re unavoidable – we’ve had terrible weather and the acreage has dropped because of it,” David says. “But, on the flip side, you get three things with the soya market that you never find in the same place at the same time.

“It’s high volume. It’s high value. And it’s not picky.

“Usually, if you have a high volume and high value product, you can guarantee it will be picky, with lots ending up rejected because of blemishes and similar. Soya gets milled into a flour or cooked and smashed into a pulp that’s fed to a pig – so that’s not an issue.

“Your average grower who forgets to spray it and combines it in the rain will still, even if his sample is a bit imperfect, get around £475 a tonne.”

The one thing soya doesn’t have is recognition and support from the UK government. “We don’t get any credit from the government for nitrogen fixation,” David says.

“If you do an energy balance calculation for legumes versus so-called energy crops, (KJ in versus KJ out), you find that the legumes are actually better. I’m not necessarily saying they should just give us money for growing peas, beans, lupins and soya, but if they recognised their decarbonising contribution on a fair and equal basis, it would allow farmers to decarbonise their rotation while addressing our protein deficiency all in one fell swoop.

“That’s not asking for special treatment. That’s just asking for equal treatment.” 

However, David is still optimistic soya has a bright future in the UK.

“We’ve come a million miles in terms of varieties, chemistry, value, price and the gross margin, and the economics of the rotational need for a nitrogen fixing break is needed now more than ever,” he says.

“Farmers are moving towards a more environmental type of farming and legumes such as soya will be a massive part of that. We just need the British government to wake up and smell the coffee and start to do a bit more for legumes overall.”

The future is bright, David believes, because soya can now stand on its own two feet. “Just look at the gross margin – it’s marvellous,” he says. “And we could build a big UK acreage. We’re not going to fill up the East of England and produce three and a half million tonnes but every single arable farmer in the southern half of the country could feasibly grow soya in their rotation. It’s a serious contender.”

Growing soya in practice

“The main restrictions are soil type and geography,” David says. “However, if you farm in the southern half of the country and you’re not over 600 feet above sea level, then anyone can do it.

“You also don’t need any special equipment – you can drill it with an ordinary drill, combine it with any old combine. You don’t need a fancy sprayer.”

He adds that the only farmers who probably need to stop and question whether soya is right for them are those farming on exceptionally heavy clays as they may struggle to get the necessary seed bed moisture during establishment.

“But otherwise absolutely anyone else can do it,” he adds. “There are no rotational restrictions with soya and it is rotationally compatible with peas and beans.”

Peas can be grown once every six years; beans once every five. “Soya doesn’t have those restrictions,” David says. “You can throw a soya crop into the middle of that one year in six for your peas and that one year in five for your beans without invalidating the break, which is a really important point.

“It means someone could grow peas, then wheat, then soya and then grow wheat again. This will be really important for decarbonisation because, if we’re going to try to get more legumes into rotations, then rotational restrictions are clearly going to be very important going forwards.”

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