Some 30 years ago, Rocky turned out to be the sleeper film sensation of 1976 — the movie critics expected to go nowhere. Now, much like Rocky, a crop much ignored and even derided in the past has become the Alabama sleeper crop sensation of 2008.
That’s right: While everyone has been talking about corn’s eclipse of cotton throughout the state, few have noticed the resurgence of soybeans on fields from one end of Alabama to the other.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service in Montgomery reports that Alabama soybean acreage even has exceeded corn acreage in the state this year. Some 330,000 acres of soybeans were planted in 2008 — a sharp increase from the 190,000 acres planted in 2007.
By comparison, some 250,000 acres of corn were planted this year, down sharply from the 340,000 acres planted in 2007.
Several factors account for this dramatic rebound in soybean acres — first and foremost, price. Growers throughout the state have been returning to soybeans in droves now that they are fetching higher prices, according to Dennis Delaney, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System agronomist.
Also, compared with other row crops — cotton, corn and peanuts — soybeans typically require fewer input costs. These twin advantages even have led some growers to undertake changes considered unthinkable only a few years ago — for example, not only planting soybeans but irrigating them.
“A few years ago, people would have thought you were crazy for putting soybeans under a pivot because the price just wasn’t there,” says Max Runge, an Extension economist. “But times have changed.
“Now, it can be profitable to spend extra on irrigation.”
The higher prices also have prompted many newly minted soybean growers to become more zealous in other ways, Runge says.
In the past, it wasn’t profitable to undertake insect applications and to control rust, he says, simply because low soybean prices did not justify the marginal increases in yields that typically followed these treatments.
Now the improved price of soybeans have provided an incentive for producers to better manage these inputs — insect applications, disease management and rotations — to increase their profits, he says.
Curiously, rebounding wheat prices also have been a key factor behind this soybean resurgence, Delaney says.
“The price of wheat is so high that farmers can double-crop behind that wheat with soybeans,” he says, adding that most farmers planted wheat this year with the intention of following it up with soybeans.
Winter wheat plantings totaled some 240,000 acres this year, compared with 120,000 last year, the NASS reports.
The increase reflects a significant change from recent years, when wheat was planted largely as a cover crop and harvested only in cases when wheat prices improved, Runge says.
This year’s soybean acreage likely would have been even larger but for a shortage of high-quality seed, Delaney says.
He says most of the growth in soybean acreage has occurred in the Tennessee Valley, mostly at the expense of cotton, though he points to a similar increase in southwest Alabama, followed by a less dramatic upsurge in the Wiregrass.