sealPurdue News

October 1994

Program helps soybeans become second most valuable U.S. crop

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- In 1995 some Midwestern soybean growers will notice that their soybeans stand taller and yield better, thanks to a new, pest-resistant soybean on the market.

The soybean, Bronson, which was developed at Purdue University, was one of dozens of new varieties released across the nation in 1994 to help farmers fight insects or diseases and/or grab bigger yields.

In the past six decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service and land-grant universities such as Purdue have been releasing new varieties of soybeans. Public and private breeding programs have been a major contributor to helping soybeans rise in importance in U.S. agriculture.

Soybeans, which were introduced into the United States from China in 1765, have become the nation's second most valuable crop at $11.7 billion worth of production in 1993, according to Ralph Gann, USDA's agricultural statistician in Indiana. (Corn ranked first at $16.6 billion worth of production.) Even as late as the 1930s, soybeans were used primarily as a forage. Today, soybean oil and byproducts are used in foods such as margarine, cooking and salad oils, and candy. They also supplement petroleum-based chemicals in printing inks and diesel fuels, thus improving the environmental impact of those products. Soybean meal, after oil extraction, is a high-protein livestock feed for poultry, swine, cattle and even commercially grown fish.

Chris Hurt, Purdue Extension agricultural economist, says: "It was during World War II that soybeans were discovered as a valuable livestock feed source. As a result of new uses for soybeans, production skyrocketed to a peak production value of more than $14 billion by 1979."

Soybean producers, with the help of soybean breeders, responded to increasing demands with higher soybean yields. National soybean yields have increased from about 10 bushels per acre to just under 40 bushels per acre in the past 60 years, according to the American Soybean Association.

The search for new and improved varieties during that time received a boost from public institutions sharing soybean breeding research, says Don Holt, director of the Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station and associate dean of agriculture at the University of Illinois, which has the largest public soybean breeding program in the United States. "Whenever a land-grant or Agricultural Research Service partner releases a new variety, they immediately contact the other state partners to see if they are interested in that variety," he says. "Soybean breeders in each state can test the new variety to see if it will benefit that state's farmers."

Once new public varieties are released, private soybean companies may use them as parents to develop their own lines and varieties. Soybean check-off funds collected from producers help researchers and breeders develop new varieties and new soybean germ plasm.

Although private companies do excellent research to develop new varieties, Holt says, they aim at releasing varieties that will be instantly popular with the growers. Research funded by the government or check-off funds can be more basic. For example, Purdue is seeking germ plasm for soybeans with new uses, such as better-tasting soybeans for the tofu market. Basic research also can result in better methods for identifying plant genes for resistance to pests and diseases.

Varieties adapted from Bronson will be widely popular, though, because of their resistance to virulent strains of soybean cyst nematode, which has become known as SCN.

In tests Bronson has averaged about one bushel per acre higher yield than another SCN resistant variety, Delsoy 4210. It also matures three days earlier and is more resistant to lodging, according to Jim Wilcox, a soybean breeder for USDA's Agricultural Research Service and Purdue.

Ellsworth Christmas, Purdue Extension soybean specialist says, "It is specifically recommended for planting in those areas where SCN infestations have reduced the yields."

Finding varieties that are resistant to SCN is extremely important to growers, according to John Ferris, Purdue Extension nematologist, who worked with Wilcox in developing Bronson.

"SCN is the single most threatening pest of soybean plants in Indiana and other soybean-growing regions in the United States," Ferris says.

Increasing that threat is the fact that growers will have fewer alternatives to control SCN.

"We have had some good nematicide control of SCN," says Ferris, "but that has been expensive and has proven environmentally unsound. Therefore those controls are being removed from the market. Planting resistant varieties is becoming the only way to control SCN."

The second public variety released in Indiana this year was named to recognize Albert H. Probst, the first Agricultural Research Service/Purdue soybean breeder. Probst began work in 1936.

The variety, Probst, was released in August and is a high-yielding maturity group III soybean, which is adapted to production in central and southern Indiana.

Sources: Jim Wilcox (765) 494-8074; Internet,
Ellsworth Christmas (765) 494-6373; Internet,
John Ferris (765) 494-4610
Don Holt (217) 333-0240; Internet,
Chris Hurt (765) 494-4273; Internet
Ralph Gann, (765) 494-8371
Writer: Steve Cain (765) 494-8410, Inernet,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A graphic showing the increased soybean production per acre during the past 60 years is available from Purdue News Service, (765) 494-2096.

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