* Large May soy imports expected on improved weather in Brazil
* More U.S. beans to come this year as Beijing fulfils trade deal
* Demand curbed after African swine fever slashed herd (Updates imports number with newly released customs data)
BEIJING, May 7 (Reuters) - China’s April soybean imports fell 12% from a year earlier, customs data showed on Thursday, with analysts citing the impact of bad weather delaying cargoes from top supplier Brazil.
China, the world’s top soybean buyer, brought in 6.714 million tonnes of the oilseed in April, down from 7.64 million tonnes a year ago, according to data from the General Administration of Customs.
Rains in late February held back the harvest and exports in Brazil, leading to record-low levels of soybeans and soymeal in China, which uses the commodity to feed its massive livestock sector, as well as in cooking oil.
Some crushers had to curb operations, while state stockpiler Sinograin released soybeans from reserves to state-owned crusher China Oil and Foodstuffs Corp (COFCO).
“Arrivals in April were a bit lower than (the) market estimate,” said Monica Tu, analyst with consultancy Shanghai JC Intelligence Co Ltd.
“The fall was still due to slow loading in Brazil earlier, which only started to speed up in the second half of March.”
China was also expected to step up purchases of soybeans from the United States this year, to fulfil commitments under a trade deal they signed in January. Chinese crushers booked another 378,000 tonnes of U.S. soybeans in the latest round of buying.
But the volume of U.S. cargoes might not rise significantly in short term, as buyers have mostly covered the near months with Brazilian beans, analysts said.
“May was pretty much full, but it would be another story if there is purchase for non-commercial use,” said Tu.
April imports rose from 4.28 million tonnes in March, when shipments were also hit by cargo delays and disruptions because of the coronavirus pandemic.
For the first four months of 2020, China imported 24.51 million tonnes of soybeans, customs said.
Supply shortages started to ease at China’s southern ports in the second half of April as more cargoes began to arrive with improving weather conditions in Brazil.
A large volume of beans was expected to land in May and June, with the number of shipments leaving Brazil in March at a record high. The sea voyage takes about 40 days.
“We should expect May (soybean imports) to be large,” said Darin Friedrichs, senior Asia commodity analyst at broker INTL FC Stone.
“Most of the April weekly arrivals were about 1.5 million tonnes, but near the end of the month the large-scale new crop Brazilian shipments really started to arrive.”
China’s national weekly soybean stocks CFD-SBSTK-NATN rose to 4.26 million tonnes by May 6, up from 3.31 million tonnes in late March, the lowest since at least 2010.
Weekly soymeal inventories were at 185,500 tonnes by May 6, after hitting a record low on April 19. CFD-SBMST-NATN
China’s soybean demand has been curbed by the deadly African swine fever disease, which cut the pig herd by at least 40%. The herd is starting to recover as farmers restock, supported by high profits and government measures to boost output. (Reporting by Hallie Gu and Shivani Singh; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Kenneth Maxwell)