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Off-color soybeans becoming an inspection and grading issue

A growing number of soybeans are showing up with a seed coat something other than yellow. The soybeans that often have a large area that is often more brown are called soybeans of other colors, or SBOC.

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Some soybeans are showing are showing more color variation, such as brown or dark gray seed coats, which can be an issue when it comes to grade certification by federal inspectors.
Shawn Conley / University of Wisconsin
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Soybeans in the United States are often graded as yellow soybeans. The problem is that a growing number of soybeans are showing up with a seed coat something other than yellow.

Some soybeans are showing up with areas that are more brown or gray and are called soybeans of other colors, or SBOC.

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Seth Naeve, University of Minnesota Extension soybean specialist.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Experts, such as Seth Naeve of University of Minnesota Extension, say the color variation does not indicate a difference in quality and nutritional value than more traditional beans should make no difference if the soybeans are being crushed for oil and meal.

“It’s not something that is shocking when you see it,” Naeve said.

But as Kurt Haarmann of Columbia Grain, a major of exporter of soybeans in the Pacific Northwest notes, the color is codified in the Federal Grain Inspection Service’s standard, and if more than 1% of soybeans are of off-color, they can’t be certified as No. 1 yellow soybeans.

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Soybeans are showing up with darker areas on the seed coat, but experts say that should not affect the quality of the bean.
Shawn Conley / University of Wisconsin

Naeve said the problem appears to be exclusively with Enlist E3 soybeans. 

Naeve did not have a guess on what percentage of farmers are planting Enlist soybeans, but adds, “We saw a big bump this year over last year for sure.”

That bump in popularity may be contributing to the bump in soybeans of other colors showing up in grain inspections.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the average soybeans of other colors percentage jumped above 0.5% last fall for the first time since at least 2010 and was nearing 1% this year.

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Data shows an increase in the occurance of soybeans of other colors, or SBOC.
Courtesy / U.S. Department of Agriculture

Those numbers are still fairly small so Haarmann called the issue more of a concern than a problem. But it is enough of a concern to get the attention of the industry.

Naeve said those most affected would be those exporting food-grade soybeans to Southeast Asia, where the beans might be intended for tempeh or other food for humans.

“There’s a really niche area where this seems to be important and outside of that area it may not be a big issue for most farmers,” Naeve said.

For exporters seeking a premium for those soybeans, “This threw a little bit of a wrench in that whole system,” Naeve said.

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Haarmann said grain companies are working with the Federal Grain Inspection Service and trade associations on possibly revising the standards for soybean color variation. But that is not an easy process since the standards are part of federal law.

“It literally takes an Act of Congress,” Haarmann said.

But he notes that the standards do sometimes change. Test weight had been a grading factor for soybeans that was dropped.

But even if the U.S. standards were to change, importing countries still may not want the off-color beans.

"Their import standards are enshrined in their domestic food laws,” Haarmann said.

He said he could foresee "where buyers are not satisfied even though it's met grade certificate.”

But that would still be a small percentage because most U.S. soybeans sent to Asia are ground for livestock feed and color would be of little concern.

In an email to Agweek, Corteva Agriscience, the company behind Enlist soybeans, said Enlist is not the only soybean variety displaying color variation and that it has been communicating with growers about the issue.

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Corteva says that “in our many years of studying Enlist E3 soybeans at multiple research and production sites, we have not seen consistent expression that allows us to predict when or where it may be seen.”

Grain inspection numbers show the problem to be most prominent in the southeast U.S., followed by the Midwest.

From anecdotal evidence, Haarmann said Nebraska and North Dakota are areas more heavily affected, as well as Illinois, where a lot of soybeans are loaded on to barges.

Naeve said there doesn't seem to be any consistency why some beans are off-color. He said one agronomist doing hand sampling even noted that where a pod is on the plant seems to make a difference, with off-colors showing up closer to the ground.

“We’re getting a lot of samples in and making note of individual varieties and locations,” Naeve said. He said solving the mystery will require some "reverse engineering."

Haarmann said that while it may be Enlist soybeans now, color variation could show up in other seed brands, too.

"We're firmly in the land of unintended consequences," Haarmann said.

Naeve said something farmers may want to keep in mind is that genetics companies are trying to get new varieties to the market quickly and using those new varieties can yield some surprises, such as off-color beans.

“Every time we get a new trait, something ends up showing up and it’s just because we’re getting these things so quickly,” Naeve said.

As soybean harvest wraps up, some farmers will be putting their beans into storage. Naeve has this advice: “For those farmers, they just kind of need to keep their ear to the ground and find out what other farmers have been hearing and if elevators have started segregating and perhaps even docking for off-color soybeans."

Related Topics: AGRICULTURECROPSSOYBEANSAGRICULTURE RESEARCHMINNESOTANORTH DAKOTA
Reach Jeff Beach at jbeach@agweek.com or call 701-451-5651 (work) or 859-420-1177.
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