The nation's soybean growers want an increase in price-supporting government loan rates that enables them to hold their crop off the market until prices improve.

The American Soybean Association said the increase would cost little while still encouraging production when Congress changes farm programs this year.The second-most-valuable U.S. crop after corn, soybeans receive virtually no government support compared with subsidies for the traditional program crops such as corn, other feed grains, cotton, rice and wheat.

Even though payments for those crops will be reduced under pending legislation, soybean producers will have a disadvantage, the soybean organization said.

"Unless equitable conditions are provided, soybeans will continue to lose acres, and U.S. soybean producers will miss a major opportunity to compete for growing world demand for oilseeds and oilseed products," said John Long, a Newberry, S.C., grower and president of the group.

A loss of soybean acres in middle Southern states and the Southeast would disrupt feed supplies for the poultry and swine industries concentrated in those regions, Mr. Long said.

For soybeans to compete, the price-supporting loan rate should be raised

from its current $4.92 a bushel, the soybean association said. Because market prices have averaged much higher, farmers don't benefit from the price floor provided by the loan.

The group wants support to equal 95 percent of average prices for the past five years, which would mean a loan rate of $5.51 a bushel.

Cotton and rice growers get payments based on the difference between their loan rate and the lower world price. Like corn and wheat growers, they also get a deficiency payment based on the difference between a higher target price set by the government and the market price.

A bill approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee would make it easier to plant cotton or rice on traditional soybean acres. Although soybeans could be planted on traditional cotton or rice acres, the benefits are smaller.