Letter From Langdon: Long Live the ‘Quean Bean’
Corn has always been the king crop in the midwest. But this year, look out for the bean!
With the ever-escalating prices for corn in the news, this veteran of many corn wars would like to point out that in the Midwest, corn may be the king, but his petite dark eyed queen is the soybean.
All the bad things they say about corn are true. It takes energy to grow, it takes energy to move to market, and it takes energy to refine. But in the end, the means are justified because we have found so many uses for corn. The markets justify the effort. Here around Langdon, we don’t believe in anyone or anything who claims to be king, but we do believe in a heritage that pays due respect to corn and the livestock that eats it.
A few hills over from Langdon, in Tarkio, Missouri, a farmer named David Rankin revolutionized farming with his approach to land buying”¦. and growing corn back in the early days of the last century. He even wrote a book about it. David Rankin found that he could pay for land purchases by growing corn and feeding it to hogs and cattle. We call that “walking the corn off the farm,” because in those days, most livestock that ate the grain walked a good distance to a rail terminal on their final trek to the abattoir.
The rush to corn and livestock made perfect sense in David Rankin’s day. Our immigrant population ate diets high in starches and carbohydrates, and craved the protein and fat of corn fed pork and beef. Not only was meat unrivaled as a protein source, but also lard was widely used for cooking and baking.
Then came the Quean Bean.
In the 1930’s, soybeans became popular as hay fed to livestock, mostly cattle. Recognized for their high protein content, soybean plants rivaled alfalfa. But the annual soybean crop provided only one cutting, compared to the perennial alfalfa, which gave 3 to 5 cuttings — and then re-emerged each spring to do the same thing all over again next year.
Over time, however, people learned that the real protein jackpot wasn’t in the soybean plant cut for hay, but in the grain that came from the mature soybean. They learned to extract oil from the beans and, that to be fully digestible, soybeans must be cooked. They learned to accomplish both outcomes with one process called extrusion.
Soybean field at sunset.
At first livestock producers used the Quean Bean to supplement livestock diets and gain better efficiency in converting grain to protein. Oil was the low value by-product of soymeal. Over the years the low price of soyoil encouraged its use, mostly for cooking. Then soybean producers and corporations worked together to find uses for oil other than cooking. All sorts of uses for soyoil surfaced. Many of them replaced petroleum products.
Then came renewable fuels.
With his high starch content, the King was a natural for making an alcohol fuel (ethanol) that could rival gasoline in price. But don’t count out the Quean Bean. The reason soybean prices are as high as they are today is because we started using soyoil to make biodiesel. (Europeans make their biodiesel out of rapeseed and canola oil.) This is nothing new. It's exactly what Rudolf Diesel had in mind when he developed an engine that would replace animal power with a motor that could be fueled with what is grown on the farm.
But the Quean has an advantage over the King.
Thanks in large part to higher petroleum prices, the cost of producing corn now has increased dramatically, perhaps doubling in less than three years. Those direct, out-of-pocket production costs equal close to one-third the value of the crop.
But in today’s marketplace, soybean direct out-of-pocket production costs have increased by only 30 percent, and those costs equal little more than 15 percent of the value of an average crop if sold at today’s prices.
This spring, don’t be too surprised by a cry rising up from the U.S. grain belt: “The King is dead, long live the Quean!”