A Commodity Investor's Guide to Soybeans

How planting and harvest seasons influence the price of soybeans

Aerial view of a combine in a field with rows of corn and soybean plants.
••• Mitch Kezar/ Stone/ Getty images

Soybean crops around the world have their own unique production cycles of planting, growing and harvesting, all of which influence the price of the crop. Listed below are the windows of opportunity for planting and harvesting soybean crops within the largest soybean-producing countries in the world. Grain prices tend to move the most during the growing season, as supply expectations can shift significantly depending on planted acreage, weather and growing conditions.

Crop disease and infestation can also play a role in the price volatility of soybeans each year. 

Soybean Planting and Harvest Cycles

In the United States, most soybean crops are grown in the Midwest and Delta regions. Typically, the southernmost areas begin planting first, and the northern areas begin planting as the snow melts, the soil thaws and temperatures warm.

United States (38 percent of world production)
Planting: Late April through June.
Harvest: Late September through the end of November.

Brazil (25 percent of world production)
Planting: Mid-August through mid-December.
Harvest: February through May.

Argentina (19 percent of world production)
Planting: October through December.
Harvest: April through early June.

China (7 percent of world production)
Planting: Late April through mid-June.
Harvest: September through early October.

Factors That Determine the Price of Soybeans

While soybeans are produced around the world, the 800-pound gorilla in the world of soybean output is the United States.

Therefore, the U.S. crop is the key determinate of the price path of this important grain, and there are a number of factors that will cause the price of soybeans to move higher or lower.

1. The primary driver of price each year is weather across the farming regions of the U.S. As soybeans are an agricultural commodity, the weather determines the size and condition of the crop.

Soybeans can be stored, but the shelf life of inventories is limited as they deteriorate and lose nutritional value over long periods.

2. The second important factor when it comes to price is the demand for soybean products. The crushing of raw soybeans is a process that turns the commodity into soybean meal and soybean oil. Soybean meal is required for animal feed and oil is a key ingredient in many foods that we purchase. Additionally, soybean oil is used for cooking around the world. When demand for soybean products increases it translates into demand for the raw beans.

3. A third factor is the value of the U.S. dollar. When the dollar is strong, U.S. soybeans are more expensive than beans from other nations, which makes U.S. crops less competitive against nations with weaker currencies. There is an inverse price relationship between soybeans, as well as other commodities, and the dollar.

4. Another important factor when it comes to the price of soybeans comes from the supply side of the fundamental equation. Farmers have a choice in terms of the crops they plant on their acreage each year. Often, U.S. farmers chose between corn and soybeans. If corn is more expensive on a relative basis than soybeans, farmers tend to plant more corn than soybeans.

This often results in a smaller soybean crop which is inherently bullish for the price of beans. When beans are more expensive, the converse tends to occur.

5. Finally, soybeans are a commodity. When macro forces cause an overall strong market for agricultural commodity prices, this tends to translate into price strength. During bear market periods, the converse is often the case. There are many factors at play when it comes to the price direction of soybeans each year, and as planting season gets underway in the spring, the eventual soybean crop yield in the fall is the sum of all of these factors. During the months that run from the spring to fall seasons each year, the price of soybeans can become volatile. Bumper crops are bearish while shortfalls cause the price to rise. 

Soybean prices tend to be most volatile when uncertainty about the crop increases.

In 2016, a palm oil shortage caused by weather issues in Asia and a smaller than expected South American crop caused the price of nearby soybean futures to rally from under $9 per bushel to over $12 during the planting season in the U.S. A bumper crop brought the price back down to under $10 per bushel. In 2017, a surprise snowstorm at the end of April across many growing areas of the U.S. caused a brief rally. As you can see, the weather is often the most important factor when it comes to the path of least resistance for the price of soybeans.