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Could soybean acres surpass corn nationally and SD?

Pat Feterl, left, and Zach Schroder owners of Agronomy Plus stand for a photo behind their shop on Thursday afternoon. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Pat Feterl and Zach Schroder are gearing up for a spring that could see more soybeans sowed into South Dakota's ground.

Corn has historically been king in the United States and locally, but this year could be the first time in 35 years that more soybean acres are planted nationally than corn. And Feterl and Schroder, owners of Agronomy Plus in Mitchell, are seeing that in their seed sales.

"This year we'll actually sell more acres of beans than we will corn," said Feterl, a Salem native, who along with Schroder became owners of the ag retail business in October. They purchased the business last year from Doug and Carol Adams, who owned Agronomy Plus for more than two decades.

Feterl, 48, and Schroder, 42, have years of experience selling seed and agriculture chemicals to South Dakota farmers. But they've never seen soybean seed sales outpace corn.

Planted acreage for soybeans and corn may be neck-and-neck this year in South Dakota, officials say, but the trend line shows the race is getting closer. Last year 5.7 million corn acres edged the 5.65 million acres of soybeans. On Thursday, the United States Department of Agriculture released its Crop Production and World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report, which predicted there will be 90.2 million acres of corn planted nationally and 90.1 million acres of soybeans.

But a recent estimate in a Bloomberg survey of 21 trading firms and analysts shows American farmers will plant a record 90.69 million acres, and corn is forecasted to drop to 90.12 million.

Grain prices, spring weather and crop rotation will be the biggest factors farmers will look at when considering whether to put more beans in the ground.

Schroder, a Huron native, pointed to the lower risk involved with planting and harvesting beans, saying expenses are significantly less per acre than corn. He estimated total expenses to plant and harvest beans to be about $100 less per acre. To grow one acre of beans ranges between $360 to $399 per acre, whereas corn ranges between $447 and $519 per acre.

This is the fifth straight year that soybeans are offering better returns.

After years of depressed crop prices, those premiums are more important than ever—just ask Julie Burgod. The 52-year-old farms 4,500 acres and raises calves near ‬Ipswich with her husband and son. They already plan to slash corn acres in half to make way for soybeans, because the grain "doesn't pay the bills." Burgod also owns a crop insurance agency and said many of her clients are echoing the sentiment.

"Soybeans are king, and corn is queen," Burgod said.

Lisa Elliott is an assistant professor and commodity marketing specialist with South Dakota State University. She said aside from profitability, crop rotation will heavily influence total planted soybean acreage.

"A lot of guys are pretty set in their rotations and they may not want to break out of that," she said. "Some may be more willing to alter that. ... Maybe some of those acres for minor crops that guys have been trying to grow may be switched back to corn and beans."

And farmers don't switch more than 10 percent of their acres out of regular rotation, Feterl said.

"Beans on beans, it gets hard on dirt and you get disease," he said. "Corn on corn, you get nitrogen and nutrient tie-up, and you're guaranteed 15 to 20 bushel less per acre."

And South Dakota's dry growing seasons in recent years are also weighing on the minds of farmers, as soybeans can be planted later due to a shorter growing season and the seed can handle a drier climate and hold on longer while waiting for moisture.

Schroder attributed some of that to seed genetics, saying companies are putting significant research into improving soybeans.

"They're actually spending more money on beans for research and development than they are corn," Schroder said of companies such as Monsanto.

The last time soybeans surpassed corn nationally for total planted acres was 1983, but officials say the next six to eight weeks, due to weather and prices, will determine if it finally happens again.

— Bloomberg News contributed to this report.