Producers chasing the market are looking into lentils — but they pay off in other ways.
Two are reduced disease and insect pressure, said Neil Whatley, crop specialist at the Ag-Info Centre in Stettler.
“If you’ve got canola/wheat (rotation), you can put something like a lentil or a field pea or a forage in there,” said Whatley. “A lot of the diseases are in the residues and the straw from the year before. When you break the rotation up, it helps get rid of those canola diseases and keeps them at a low level for when you plant canola or wheat the next time.”
Their nitrogen-fixing ability attracted Greg Berscht to lentils seven years ago.
And he’s found more reasons to keep growing them on his farm near Sibbald.
“Legumes make the soil nice and mellow,” he said. “If you’re continuous cropping, it’s a must. You can’t put enough fertilizer in to do what they do. Plus, they’re a good price.”
After lentils, Berscht usually grows durum or barley, so he can get the benefit of the nitrogen boost.
“A wheat crop planted after a lentil crop often gets high protein, since it gets fed nitrogen over the whole growing season,” said Whatley. “It gets nitrogen even in the mid- and later stages.”
Canola growers can also see a small nitrogen bump.
A lot of people in his area are looking into lentils, said Berscht, and he has had a number of calls from area producers looking for seed because the prices for lentils (about 35 to 40 cents a pound) are so good right now.
The lentil crop in southern Alberta and eastern Saskatchewan wasn’t very good last year, resulting in a shortage which is driving up prices.
India and Turkey do produce lentils, but often buy them as well.
“There’s always a pretty steady demand for lentils, but the prices do fluctuate depending on worldwide yields in India, Turkey and Western Canada,” said Whatley. “This year, there’s a shortage of lentils in the world, so the price has gone even higher.”
Lentils have shallow roots, while cereal roots are deep and canola has both shallow and deep roots. So alternating these crops means soil water is more efficiently utilized, since the plants take water from different areas.
Lentils do well in dry conditions in the brown and dark-brown soil zones. Green lentils are graded on colour, and are discounted when mechanically damaged. Red lentils will keep longer, while greens will oxidize in the bin.
“If you keep them for a year, they’ll turn orange and you’ll get downgraded,” said Berscht.
Newly developed lentil varieties offer a number of benefits. New Clearfield red lentil varieties can go as far north as the thin black soil zone and are tolerant to a number of herbicides, including Odyssey.
“These new varieties are more determinant,” said Whatley. “For the older varieties, if there was excess rain or excess nitrogen in the soil, they would grow vegetatively and not set seed. These new red varieties — like CDC Maxum and CDC Dazil — grow more determinately, so they will go to seed like most other plants will.”
The new varieties also have Group 2 resistance and an improved seed yield.
Berscht said that he’s noticed that lentils don’t do well in periods of heavy rain.
Producers were deterred from growing lentils in the past because of indeterminate growth and growth into lentil hay, something that isn’t a factor with the new varieties. They are early maturing with good disease resistance and fewer lodging issues.
Pods are close to the soil surface, so many producers, including Berscht, use flex headers.
“There are so many good headers out there right now, so most growers can get down there,” said Whatley.
“If they stand up, they’re nice to cut,” added Berscht. “But if they lay down, they’re a nightmare. You’re digging in the dirt and the wet ground.”
Lentils are a finicky crop to grow, and it takes awhile to get the hang of it, said Berscht.
He recommends rolling the land and avoiding stony fields. Some types of lentils, can be swathed, and swathing tends to result in a better grade, but can result in some lentils getting thrashed onto the ground. Lentils don’t do well on hilly land or on summerfallow because they need stress to produce seed. When grown on chemfallow, lentils will keep growing and produce lots of foliage, without producing a lot of seed.
The crop needs to be sprayed for disease when it first flowers.