Soybean growers in the country's midsection soon will be better able to cash in on the premium prices offered for specialty varieties.

Sam Anand, veteran University of Missouri soybean breeder, is working on five types of specialty soybeans, and is speeding up development by growing a second research crop each year in Puerto Rico.

"Soybeans are versatile; we can tailor the plant to any number of specialized uses," says Anand. "We have some varieties in field tests now."

So far, growers in the northern half of the Corn Belt have more specialty varieties to grow than their neighbors farther south. That's thanks to breeders at Iowa State University (ISU), which has been releasing specialty soybeans - especially food-type varieties - for several years.

"In just the past two years, Iowa State has released more than a half-dozen food-use varieties," says ISU plant breeder Walter Fehr. "Several of them have low or no lipoxygenase, the enzyme that imparts the characteristic beany flavor to soybeans."

Most of those varieties are in Maturity Groups I and II. Anand's will be in Groups III and IV. The lineup in his breeding program includes:

* Natto soybeans. These small, BB-sized beans are grown for the Japanese snack market, and buyers are picky about quality. But when they get what they want, they'll pay a premium - up to $20/bu.

"The Natto varieties I'm testing now have performed well, and the yield is good," says Anand. We'll have a variety ready to release before long."

* A high-protein variety that yields 44% protein, leaving 50%-protein soybean meal after oil is extracted. Still under development, it's also resistant to most races of cyst nematode.

* Tofu soybeans - large-seeded beans with a thin, yellow seed coat and a clear hilum. Anand is working with research soybeans that weigh more than 20 grams per 100 seeds. That compares with 12-15 grams per 100 conventional beans.

"These are bred especially for the export market," says Anand.

* Low-saturated-fat beans, with oil that has half as much saturated fat as conventional soybeans. Regular beans have 14-15% saturated fat; Anand is working with varieties with less than 7%.

"That's on a par with canola oil," he says. "But it's more difficult than breeding, say, tofu beans, because we didn't have low-saturated-fat plants to start with. We've had to chemically mutate seed and make careful selections. It will probably take another five years to come up with a low-saturated-fat variety that performs consistently."

* Beans low in linolenic acid and saturated fat. Linolenic acid is the substance that makes soy oil break down and go rancid in a few weeks.

"Combining the two traits in one variety will yield a superior-quality oil," he says.

Among the toughest breeding chores Anand faces is maintaining both high yield and high oil content, while increasing protein.

"There is a negative correlation between high protein and high oil," he says. "And soybeans with high-quality oil tend to be notoriously poor yielders.

"But we cannot ignore yield and important agronomic traits in specialty soybeans," he adds. "Even if the buyer pays a premium, yield still is a major consideration for growers."

Anand's work is funded by checkoff dollars from the United Soybean Board and the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council.