Jim and Laurie Isley of Palmyra grow lots of soybeans — about 1,300 acres to be exact.
Their son, Jacob, a sixth-generation grower, also works with them. Together, the family grows soybeans on their mostly sandy soil.
And even after farming for several generations, the family remains impressed by the number of uses for the versatile crop, which impacts animal feed, household products, soyfoods and other industrial uses.
“It’s pretty exciting to hear about the growth of many things made from soybeans,” Laurie told The Daily Telegram ahead of planting season. “You see more and more of these opportunities in research and advances.”
The Isleys are among several local soybean growers in both Lenawee County and the state. Michigan ranks 12th in the nation in soybean growing.
Soybeans contribute millions of dollars to Michigan’s economy each year. And the beans have been a major economic boost, too, to both Lenawee and Monroe counties.
In fact, Lenawee County is one of the top-producing counties of soybeans in the state in terms of bushels harvested due to the county’s open ground and rich soil.
Laurie has served as chairwoman of the Michigan Soybean Committee for the past four years. The panel is active in promoting new uses for soybeans in many products through grower checkoff funds.
Most soybeans in the state are grown for use in animal feed, but some are used in Michigan soyfoods and everyday household products like cleaners, lotions, candles, crayons and makeup, according to the committee.
Livestock and poultry producers in Michigan purchase 425,000 tons of locally grown soybean meal to feed their dairy cows, beef cattle, chickens, turkeys and hogs each year.
The largest consumers of soybeans, when used as animal feed, are livestock, ranging from pigs to cows, chickens and beef cattle. More than 98% of all soybean meal is consumed by these animals.
Even some aquaculture — shrimp, trout, etc. — are fed soybean meal.
Common industrial uses of soybeans include foam for car seats, biodiesel fuel, carpet backing, paint balls, lotion, crayons, paint, lubricants, adhesive, soy ink, hand cleaners, medicine, plastics, turf, tires and much more.
Soybean oil also has many industrial uses, including biodiesel, crayons, shoes, tires and even in reconstruction of roads, she said.
Soy is a complete protein, equal in quality to animal protein.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said that 25 grams of soy protein each day may reduce the risk of heart disease, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol.
Because of its nutritional value, soyfoods are a good source of iron and are commonly found in soy milk, soy nuts, cheese, yogurt, tempeh, imitation bacon bits, soy oil, tofu, margarine and other foods.
Michigan growers consistently produce quality soybeans that are also high in essential amino acids, according to Laurie.
Amino acids are the best measure of the true nutritional value of animal feed.
Essential amino acids are a critical component when evaluating the quality of soybeans, she explained. The protein in food is made up of amino acids, and the quality of that protein is based on the number and types of amino acids it contains.
Animal foods contain high-quality protein, and egg white has the highest quality protein of all, research shows.
Soybean meal is an important protein source for livestock and poultry. Essential amino acids help animals such as chickens, swine and aquaculture build muscle mass and produce more meat and eggs, Laurie explained.
In the past, soy products have typically been valued based on their crude protein content, which puts northern-grown soybeans at a disadvantage. However, research has shown that the amino acid profile is a better indicator of soybean value.
Certain high oleic soybeans are higher in amino acids and used in frying foods, she added.
Growing for seed, processing
Soybeans have a growing season of about 4 to 4 1/2 months and fewer bushels to harvest and haul to the elevator than corn, according to Monroe Township grower Jerry Heck.
In the fall, when the beans get wet, the moisture level is dryer than in corn, and they dry in the field easier than corn, Heck explained. They also don’t grow as tall as corn.
“You need good soil-to-seed contact, so when the soil temperature gets to 50 degrees and absorbs the right amount of water, the seed will sprout and starts to grow,” Heck said.“You can still walk out in the field and not get lost.”
Many soybeans are grown for seed production to be used the following year.
The rest often is taken to elevators or to processors like Zeeland Farm Services Inc. in Ithaca; Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) Grain Co., which has terminals in Ottawa Lake and Fostoria, Ohio; or to the NextDiesel Biodiesel Plant in Adrian.
Zeeland processes the beans into both oil and animal feed, along with items such as paint, creams, crayons, tires and seat cushions.
Soybean growers like Heck use less fertilizers and chemicals per acre on their soybean fields than they did a generation ago, he said. There’s also less runoff, soil and water erosion.
“Farmers are producing bigger yields on more acres with fewer inputs than they did 20 years ago,” Heck said. “And we’re doing it in a more sustainable way. They’re disturbing the ground less and there’s a decrease in unintended pollution.”
Growers vary the seeding rate when they plant and do more scouting of their fields for insect pests during the growing season.
“We only put on weed controls or pesticides if we need it,” he said. “Farmers are doing a better job overall as far as the environment is concerned and technology is helping us with that.”
Favorable prices for selling soybeans also have aided in their popularity among growers.
Grain prices have their ups and downs, but lately soybean prices have seen a marked increase, Laurie explained. February prices hovered in the $13.70-a-bushel range, a far cry from the $8.50 range seen last summer, she said.
“Prices have been very good since fall,” she added. “China is buying quite a bit more and two major competitors to the U.S. — Brazil and Argentina — have drought issues now, so that has helped our prices to go up.”
What’s amazing is how fast soybeans can be harvested and taken to the elevator and then shipped to markets both in the U.S. and abroad, according to the state soybean committee.
Nearly 2 million acres of soybeans are planted each year in Michigan on farms. Soybeans generate more than $1 billion to the state’s economy.
If one adds in processing and further uses for soys, including livestock feed, about $1.5 billion is returned to growers, manufacturers and processors, the committee said.
Where can you find soy?
Well … nearly everywhere.
That’s because more and more research and development professionals are realizing how soy improves their products, according to the soybean committee.
From faster-drying paint to tires with vastly improved traction in wet weather, soy is making life easier, officials assert, and products better for consumers.
Soybeans provide a more versatile, affordable and environmentally friendly oil that can boost performance through the roof (by the way, soy is in roofing products, too).
The United Soybean Board already is working with scientists, innovators and businesses to incorporate soy in their products.
The late Herb Smith of Temperance, a former state ambassador for the American Soybean Association, once called soybeans “one of the joys of farming.”
The versatile chemical composition of soybeans is driving a surge of soy technology, according to the Michigan Soybean Promotion and Research Committee.
When processed, soybeans are divided into protein and oil. Soybean protein primarily is used in animal feed, but also is an ingredient in plastic composites, synthetic fiber, paper coatings and formaldehyde-free adhesives.
Soybean oil is one of the most versatile of the natural oils. Its molecular structure and suitable fatty-acid profile can be readily modified for many applications.
Soybeans offer environmental sustainability. Unlike fossil carbon sources, soybeans capture carbon dioxide from the air.
They also fix their own nitrogen for plant food, which provides an initial life-cycle advantage over other oilseeds that require nitrogen fertilizer made from natural gas. Most soybean acreage in the U.S. uses conservation tillage, which disturbs less soil and reduces fuel use.
Soybeans have a price advantage, are renewable and are in an abundant supply, which has enabled them to maintain an historic advantage over oil-based equivalents, officials say.