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(Fabaceae Glycine max)

Soybean History

Soybeans first originated in China. The oldest known evidence of the soybean actually came from historical study. In 2853 BC, the reigning Chinese Emperor Sheng-Nung first named a group of five sacred plants, also known as the Wu Ku, that were considered essential to the Chinese people. These were soybeans, rice, wheat, barley and millet. It is documented that the soybean was a greatly valued crop to the Chinese people in this era and that the soybean was sown annually with great ceremony by the emperors of China. In addition the early records also reveal that many Chinese poets wrote substantially about the soybean, extolling its virtues in their poetry.

Soybeans were first domesticated sometime between the 17th and 11th century BC. Their first domestication came in the eastern half of China where they were harvested as a food crop. At this time these Chinese farmers used the soybeans as a food staple both for themselves as well as their livestock. As the soybean became a more prominent crop in China it began to be exported to some of the neighboring Asiatic countries, such as Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Nepal and India. It is uncertain of the exact date of the exportation of the soybean but is estimated between 200 BC and 300 AD. The earliest Japanese reference to the Soybean is given in the Kojiki, which was completed in 712 AD, however it is clear from the text that it had been present for quite some time. The soybean spread largely due to the establishment of new trade routes, both by land and sea, as China began to develop as a nation. By 1712, the soybean had been introduced all the way to Europe.

During these years, they were many varied uses of the soybean, many of which are some of the same uses employed today. They were mainly grown for the seeds the produced. The seeds were used for fresh, fermented and dried food products. Large amounts of soybeans were also crushed to gain access to the oil, which was also used for food. After the soybeans were crushed and the oil extracted, the remaining meal was used for fertilizer and feed for their animals. The soybean plants were also used extensively as forage for their livestock. Many Asian families were so enamored of the soybean that it was quite frequently used even for medicinal purposes.

The history of the soybean in the United States is somewhat disputed as to when it arrived and when it was first planted. Some accounts indicate the soybean was first planted in Georgia, others Pennsylvania. Some indicate it was planted here in the late 1700s, others not until the late 1800s. Nonetheless, all agree on its original method of entry into this country. The soybean first arrived in the United States in the early 1800s as ballast aboard a trading vessel from England. Despite discussions on when it may have arrived it is well known that the soybean was not planted much, if at all, for a significant period of time after its introduction. It initially began to flourish in the late 1800s, around 1879, when farmers began to plant the soybean as forage for their livestock. The plants were most successful and prominent in Northeastern North Carolina where the hot humid summer weather was most conducive to the soybeans growth.

In the early part of the 20th century soybeans began to grow in popularity as feed crop and this was further encouraged by the US Department of Agriculture. The crop was usually harvested for a single crop of hay or it was often plowed under to improve the soil structure and fertility. In 1904, George Washington Carver discovered the vast amounts of protein in the seeds and its oil. Under his suggestion many farmers began to rotate their crops (namely cotton) with soybean. The soybeans, in addition to being a valuable crop in its own right, had the added benefit of replenishing the soil of many of the vital nutrients that other crops such as cotton would deplete from the soil. This allowed many farmers to drastically improve their yields of other crops that they may have been planting exclusively. Still, even with all this the soybean remained a relatively fringe crop seeing only minor production in this country.

This all began to change in the 1940s. Up until this time, China had been by far and away the worlds largest producer of soybeans. In the 1940s most all of the soybean fields in China were devastated and destroyed due to the Japanese invasion of World War II and the internal revolution. This destruction of the soybean fields opened the door for the United States to become a real player in the world soybean market.

While the United States became a player in the world market in the 1940s and 50s it had been involved in some form of trading in soybeans far prior to this. The U.S traded with China in soybeans as early as 1865, and with other Asian nations by 1895. As the United States became more and more of a consumer and exporter of soybeans, the amount of acreage harvested, and the yields, grew. In 1924, the average yield of the U.S soybean was 11 bushels per acre. By 1996, this amount had more than doubled to 25.4 bushels per acre. The average yields today stands at about 40 bushels per acre. Production has increased at a similar rate. In 1924, approximately 1.8 million acres had been harvested. By 1954, this number had soared to nearly 20 million acres, and by 1996 over 63 million acres were harvested in soybean. These numbers demonstrate how quickly the soybean became a tremendous value crop in this country after World War II.

The United States today produces 55% of the total world production of soybean on only 40% of the land. This, despite the fact that the soybean is native to Asia. In 2000, the United States produced 75 million metric tons of soybeans. Of this total, nearly one-third was exported. This makes this country the largest exporter of soybeans in the world. Soybeans have been and will continue to be a major cash crop that provides an enormous number of jobs and a tremendous amount of cash to our economy. Other countries produce large amounts of soybean as well, most notably Argentina, Brazil, China and India. With the exception of Brazil, no other country produces even remotely comparable levels of soybean.

In the United States, the Midwest produces the majority of the soybeans. Iowa and Illinois are the flagship producers as combined these two states alone produce one-third of all soybeans produced in the U.S. The soybean belt runs from Ohio to Nebraska, and also includes Minnesota and Missouri. This soybean belt produces approximately three-fourths of all soybeans harvested in the U.S. each year.

Soybean Uses

The soybean may well be one of the most versatile plants in the world. Innumerable products are made with soybeans or its derivatives. To be truthful, when doing the research for the uses of soybeans, I was astounded at the width and breadth of the many uses for this plant. The more research one does it becomes increasingly apparent that any attempt to give an accurate accounting of all its uses would be far too voluminous for casual curiosity. Nonetheless a brief overview of some of its uses is absolutely necessary for one to comprehend the importance of this crop and its many uses.

Soybean uses are typically divided into three main categories of use, oil products, whole soybean products, and soybean protein products. The first category of oil products can be broken down for production uses into three more main categories. These are glycerol, fatty acids, and sterols. These oil products may be refined for either edible or technical uses. Some edible products using refined soy oil are coffee creamers, cooking oils, margarine, mayonnaise, pharmaceuticals, salad dressings and sandwich spreads. The technical products produced using refined soy oil are extremely diverse. Some examples include anti-corrosion agents, caulking compounds, core oils, diesel fuel, disinfectants, epoxies, inks, paints, pesticides, soaps and detergents, vinyl plastics and even waterproof cement. The list goes on and on. The oil is highly prized for its many uses. Also considered among the oil products is soybean Lecithin. This is a co product of degumming soybean oil. After processing it can be available in several forms and can be in liquid or powder forms. It will generally have different properties depending on composition and method of production. Soybean Lecithin products are also further broken down into both edible and technical uses. The edible uses are mainly as emulsifiers such as bakery products and candy coatings. The technical uses are more varied, but include anti-foaming agents such as alcohol and yeast, as well as paint, ink and rubber.

Whole soybean products are essentially all the edible items you think of when you think of soybeans. The term whole soybean refers to things like the seed, the bean sprouts, baked soybeans, and also full fat soy flour that is created from the plants. From these basic elements of the plant, a whole host of products familiar to you are created. These are the items you see when you go into classic health food stores, in addition to some that are a little less obvious. Of course included in this group are the traditional soy foods of soy sauce, tofu, tempeh, soymilk, and miso. This group also includes such items as soy nut butter, soy coffee doughnut mix and pancake flour. One would be hard pressed to go into any health food store, anywhere in the world and not find a vast array of soy foods.

The final major division of soybean products is soybean protein products. Once again this major group can be further broken down into soy flour concentrates and isolates, and soybean meal. The soy flour concentrates and isolates has both technical and edible uses including adhesives, antibiotics, leather substitutes, water based paints, polyesters, baby food, beer and ale, grits, noodles and sausage casings. The soybean meal is mainly used for livestock feeding purposes.

It should be evident from just these small number of products listed that the soybean is a remarkably valuable and versatile plant whose many uses we are just now beginning to comprehend. Without the soybean, many of the products listed above would be unavailable or much more expensive and cumbersome to produce. This list of products is also by no means comprehensive. There are thousands of products that use some form of the soybean in its production. More uses and by-products are being discovered every day. Clearly the soybean has made a long journey from its days of discovery in ancient China. Today it is one of the worlds most diverse and widely used crops.

Facts on Soybeans and Soybean Planting

Soybeans are among the most valuable crops in the world due to their inordinately high protein content and due to the versatility of the uses of this plant. They are valued for the many products that are derived from them as well as their resilience and ability to both survive and prosper in a variety of different climates. They are grown from such extremes from a tropical environment in Brazil to the cold and snowy Hokkaido Island in Japan. Soybeans are also so high in protein that any given land area planted with soybeans can produce significantly more protein than if it were planted in other crops or even if the land were used to raise beef cattle. Soy protein is, in fact the only vegetable whose protein is actually complete. Soybeans have also received a great deal of positive press in recent years for its ability to lower LDL cholesterol.

Still this leaves us with the question, exactly what are soybeans? Soybeans, like peanuts, are in the legume family. They are mid-sized tree like plants that grow small pods containing beans. Soybeans grow to a typical height of between 31 and 47 inches. They begin to flower and then pods are produced containing on average 3 beans. The soybean meal it produces contains about 45% protein and about 21% oil. When processed a bushel of soybean will typically yield about 47.5 pounds of meal and approximately 11 pounds of oil.

For any discussion on soybeans and their planting and development one must first understand the difference in two major categories of varieties. These two major categories are determinate and indeterminate varieties. Determinate varieties are considered mainly southern varieties. These are typically the majority of the varieties you may find in our area. Some of the main qualities of determinate varieties are that they grow very little after flowering begins, flowering occurs at approximately the same time in the top and bottom of the crop, pod and seed development throughout the plant roughly the same, and the terminal node has several pods. Indeterminate varieties differ slightly and bears the following characteristics; are at less than one half of final height when flowering begins, grows taller and produces branches while flowering, pod, and seed development take place, pod and seed development are more advanced on the lower part of the plant than at the top, only a few pods at terminal node, and these are mainly considered northern varieties.

As the soybean plant grows there are considered two main stages of development, the vegetative stages and the reproductive stages. The vegetative stages are generally considered the time frame when the plant is emerging from the soil. The reproductive stages are based largely on flowering, pod development, seed development and plant maturation. A complete discussion of all the stages is probably not necessary for the scope of this page (as there are quite a few), but I shall give a few examples of growth periods one might see. VE is the earliest stage of development and is when the planys first emerge from the soil surface. V2 is several stages later when the first trifoliate leaf appears. Once the plant produces its first bloom it is considered to be in the reproductive stage. R1, for example is this point of first bloom. R3 is the time when pod growth is beginning. R8 is the final stage and it is considered reached when the plants have reached full maturity and 95% of the pods have attained mature pod color (tan).

The time frame for development between stages can vary significantly because it can be influenced by numerous factors such as temperature, water availability, day length and variety. Temperature is the major factor influencing the vegetative development. Low temperatures often retards seedling emergence and leaf development while high temperatures will typically have the opposite effect. When the soybeans reach reproductive stages and begin to flower temperature, day length and variety can also have a significant impact on development through these stages. Still despite these factors, the soybean is a fairly hardy plant that can survive and produce in a large variety of conditions.

One of the soybeans greatest assets is its relative low cost of production. Production costs in Georgia for dryland soybeans are around $143 per acre planted. If the operator provides all the labor these costs can be reduced even further to around $120 per acre. This allows one to produce a marketable crop for far less than it takes to produce other crops in our region, such as peanuts.

Soybeans are a strong crop but even it has its limitations. In our area it is recommended that in order to plant soybeans one should make sure that the filed to be planted was not planted in soybean the previous year. This constant replanted can cause a host of problems that will result in decreased yields and often higher production costs. The reason for this is due to the fact that it will increase the incidence of diseases, nematodes and soil insects. It is generally recommended to rotate soybeans with non-legume crops such as cotton to reduce these risks.

Finally, planting dates and how the soybean is planted are also vital to producing a high quality soybean crop. To prepare, subsoiling, 12 to 14 inches deep is highly recommended for sandy textured soils, while more fine textured soils may be best prepared by deep disking. The optimal planting dates in Georgia are roughly anywhere from May 10 to June 10. With warmer soils the soybeans may be planted as early as the first of May. The seeds should generally be planted between 1 to 1.25 inches deep in moist soil. Also in order to produce top soybean yields it usually desirable to keep spacing of row widths to less than 20 inches, although most soybean varieties can give near top yields with wider row spacing of 32 to 38 inches if planted at the optimal time.

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