Soybeans’ big players looking to a bruising year ahead

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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 2023/24 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 2023/24 crop will yield an export-hogging 6 billion bu., 5% more than last year’s record production and an astonishing 16% larger than the 2020/21 crop.

Two factors favor that outlook. First, after three consecutive years of dry, hot La Nina weather, this year’s El Nino 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 (mmt) of soybeans in its 2023/24 marketing year. That’s 6 mmt more than last year’s 97 mmt.

Just how many bushels are in 103 mmt of soybeans? A staggering 3.75 billion bu.

At that level, Brazil’s projected 2023/24 soy exports will — brace yourself — equal 91% of this year’s entire U.S. soybean crop of 4.1 billion bu.

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 2023/24 U.S. soybean exports, projected at 1.8 billion bu., 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 2020/21 marketing year’s total of 2.3 billion bu.

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 bu.) during harvest. Still, market watchers claim China will import 26 mmt 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 mmt 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 U.S. 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 U.S., “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 bu.) 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.

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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