June 12, 2024

Soybeans’ big players looking to a bruising year ahead

Farm & Food File

After a five-year run that featured a costly trade war and an even costlier, deadly pandemic, the biggest players in the global soybean market — the United States, Brazil and China — are positioning themselves for a big, bruising 2023-2024 marketing year.

Of the three, Brazil remains planted in the driver’s seat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts that Brazil’s mostly-planted 2023-2024 crop will yield an export-hogging 6 billion bushels, 5% more than last year’s record production and an astonishing 16% larger than the 2020-2021 crop.

Two factors favor that outlook. First, after three consecutive years of dry, hot La Niña weather, this year’s El Niño should bring more moisture and less crop stress.

Second, for the first time in memory, soy production costs are falling, encouraging Brazilian farmers to do what farmers anywhere would do: swap costly corn acres for cheaper bean acres.

If the projected, record 113 million soybean acres are planted and the better weather forecast comes to pass, USDA expects Brazil to export a record 103 million metric tons of soybeans in its 2023-2024 marketing year. That’s 6 million metric tons more than last year’s 97 million metric tons.

Just how many bushels are in 103 million metric tons of soybeans? A staggering 3.75 billion bushels.

At that level, Brazil’s projected 2023-2024 soy exports will — brace yourself — equal 91% of this year’s entire U.S. soybean crop of 4.1 billion bushels.

That hard-to-believe comparison isn’t the only hard-to-swallow export news for U.S. soybean farmers this year. The really bad news is that 2023-2024 U.S. soybean exports, projected at 1.8 billion bushels, marks the third consecutive year of falling soybean exports.

According to USDA data, the current marketing year’s soy exports will be a stunning 491 million bushels, or 21%, under the 2020-2021 marketing year’s total of 2.3 billion bushels.

The worldwide winner in this flooded global soybean market is the world’s biggest importer, China, that buys “more than 60% of the oilseed shipped worldwide to crush into meal for animal feed and oil for cooking,” reported Reuters a month ago.

Typically, China’s fourth-quarter purchases are made in the U.S. market to take advantage of the price-flattening effects of the American harvest glut.

Early November reports indicate China did buy 600,000 metric tons — 22 million bushels — during harvest. Still, market watchers claim China will import 26 million metric tons of soybeans during the fourth quarter with “45% of the volumes arriving from Brazil.”

Given those estimates, China is on its way to import a record 105 million metric tons of soy in 2023, a figure nearly — and eerily — equal to Brazil’s projected soy exports for the coming year.

In years past, that almost insatiable Chinese need for soybeans would be good news for farmers everywhere, especially in the United States.

But markets, like countries, evolve and change and the global soybean market has changed rapidly in the last decade, wrote DTN Lead Analyst Todd Hultman in late October.

First “and more important,” he explained, Brazil is outracing everyone in almost every market aspect — especially production and exporting — and no one, especially the United States, “has ever seen this level of competition for export sales.”

A second worry, noted Hultman, is the “larger market environment”: “two wars” — Russia/Ukraine and Israel/Hamas — “plus pressure on the Federal Reserve to keep raising interest rates, already at their highest level in 16 years.”

Neither condition — let alone both — creates the “kind of atmosphere that encourages traders to invest in the market,” he explained.

Still, U.S. carryover stocks, at about 5%, are tight, so soybean “prices should stay supported above $13 for the remainder of 2023 and any opportunity near $14 (per bushel) should be considered a good sale.”

After New Year’s, however, Hultman warned, “the risk of lower soybeans prices increases, depending largely on the conditions of South American crops.”

But you already knew that.

Alan Guebert

Alan Guebert

Farm & Food File is published weekly through the U.S. and Canada. Source material and contact information are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.