Every farmer knows a four-year crop rotation is best for good crops, healthy fields and managing pests.
However, the four-year ideal often clashes with production reality: canola has been the big money-maker, and while legumes are good for nitrogen fixing, they usually pay less and can present big challenges with disease, standability and harvestability compared to cereals.
But with cereal and canola prices down and fertilizer prices up, farmers are looking for other options. Enter faba bean and soybean — albeit new and improved versions of each.
Alberta faba bean acreage shot up from 6,000 acres in 2012 to between 25,000 and 30,000 acres last year, and then almost tripled again with about 80,000 acres this year.
“It’s still not a huge acreage in total, but the interest is growing very, very quickly — depending on producer success rate and pricing, I’d say we could potentially see acreage double again in 2015,” said Robyne Bowness, pulse research scientist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.
Extremely low disease incidence and pest problems, easy harvestability, and good potential profitability are all drivers.
“Last year, we saw a big hype in faba bean and the acreage exploded,” said Bowness. “Now farmers are gaining some confidence in them and increasing their acreage.”
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At just over 10,000 acres in Alberta, soybean production is currently very small. However, seed grower Patrick Fabian says interest is ballooning, particularly as growers here look eastward to Saskatchewan, which saw soybean acreage double to 370,000 acres this year, and Manitoba, where acreage was up 17.7 per cent to 1.2 million acres.
“There is the potential for a quarter of a million acres over the next number of years,” said Fabian. “The thing we have as a challenge in Alberta is low nighttime temperatures, and that’s a huge obstacle to overcome. Otherwise, they would already have swept Alberta by storm the way they have Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
“But some new varieties are proving themselves in our interesting climate, and it is now possible for some Alberta growers to have really good success.”
Both beans are cheap to grow because they fix rather than require nitrogen. And because they’re fairly new to the province, neither yet faces significant disease or pest pressure. Soybean is RoundUp Ready so offers easy weed management. And both crops stand well and are easy to harvest: a major benefit for farmers frustrated by hard-to-manage pea crops.
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Alberta’s short growing season is challenging for traditional faba bean, but the newly released varieties gaining production traction now are tailor-made to suit the cool, moist parts of this province. Top producers are seeing 60, 70, and as high as 100 bushels per acre with prices this spring at $8 per bushel, making for returns as good or higher than peas.
Soybeans, on the other hand, require daytime heat and temperatures of at least 10 C at night, said Fabian. While Bowness cautions that soybean is a “risky” proposition for Alberta producers, Fabian said producers can have success so long as they do their homework first.
“What I tell clients is go on to farmzone.com and do a historic check of overnight lows in your area for the last six to seven years,” he said.
“If you have five or more nights below 10 C during the growing season, that would give me a flag. At 10 or more nights of 10 C or less, don’t waste your money.”
There is growing potential for both faba bean and soybean markets.
“Pulses in general are starting to gain some ground domestically because even if you’re gluten free or vegetarian, you can eat pulses,” said Bowness. “As well, fractioning, whereby a product is separated into protein, fibre and starch components for food additives, is growing too. Instead of using a cornstarch, it is absolutely possible for a food manufacturer to use a faba bean starch.”
Soybeans have faced a “chicken or egg scenario” — but that’s changing, said Fabian.
“People say they’ll grow them but they need a place to market them; the soybean industry said it can market them but it needs a critical threshold amount,” he said. “Now we’re seeing investment in the industry — a number of soybean-processing plants are being built in the province to handle the anticipated increase in acres.”