Pulse acres are set to rise in 2016 — but the multimillion-dollar question is: How much?
“Realistically, we could see a 20 to 25 per cent increase in acres just based on seed sales and the usage of inoculant,” said Mark Olson, pulse crops unit head at Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
“We know from what the seed growers were saying last fall, they were sold out of field pea and lentil seed in late November to early December.
“That’s a good indication that there’s a lot of interest in pulse crops.”
While “some crystal balls are better than others,” early indicators point to a big jump in acres, said Nevin Rosaasen, policy and program specialist for Alberta Pulse Growers.
“Based on all of our lead indicators for seeding intentions from Statistics Canada, as well as hearsay from input suppliers, we do know that acres will be increasing this year,” said Rosaasen.
“Forecasts are only forecasts, of course, but everyone has acres going up.”
Last year, Alberta farmers grew 1.4 million acres of peas. That’s likely to climb to 1.6 million to 1.8 million in 2016, said Rosaasen.
“If you haven’t already purchased your yellow peas, it’s unlikely that you’ll find any,” he said.
“I have heard that there are green peas available, but seed is extremely difficult to come by right now for peas.”
Lentils could also jump from 250,000 acres last year to 300,000 this year. But fababeans — which have seen a recent resurgence, going from 20,000 acres in 2013 to around 100,000 seeded acres in 2015 — will likely hold steady this year, or even take a dip, following last year’s drought.
“Last year was such a challenging year for fababean growers,” said Rosaasen, adding fababeans “very much like water.”
“There weren’t any crops that were absolutely beautiful in the countryside due to the drought stress. By the indication of current moisture maps in the province, it looks like we have another dry year or potentially a challenging start ahead of us.
“Some of the other crops, like peas and lentils, will likely be more favourable for growers this year given the dry conditions.”
Pencil in profitability
Provincial crop profitability forecasts earlier this year pegged field peas as an across-the-province winner, with strong prices making for lower break-even yields across the board.
“The returns per acre and the profitability of growing pulses exceed most other crops,” said Rosaasen.
Right now, pea prices are hovering around $12 a bushel — a strong net return per acre that makes good economic sense for many growers, said Olson.
“A number of guys did lock in some pretty good contracts last fall for this year,” he said.
It’s the same story for lentils, said Rosaasen.
“When you pencil out lentils, it’s by far one of the most profitable mainstream crops.”
That could lead to “a fairly big jump in red lentil,” added Olson.
“That’s part and parcel of prices being really quite lucrative right now — you’re seeing 35 to 40 cents a pound for lentils on average,” he said.
Strong prices are “huge,” said Olson, but ultimately, “we know that diverse crop rotations are the most economical and profitable.”
“We’re getting all the benefits of getting a crop that’s fixing its own nitrogen in the year you grow it and leaving some residual nitrogen in years following,” he said. “You’re lowering the carbon footprint by not having to spend a whole bunch of money on manufactured nitrogen and having to transport and apply it.
“There’s the whole environmental aspect, which people are keenly aware of.”
Some producers will be trying pulses for the first time or in larger acreages than they have in the past — and those growers need to “arm themselves with information,” said Rosaasen.
“The best way to do that is to come to PulsePod.ca, which is an online agronomy wiki,” he said. “You can learn about everything from seeding rate to the types of diseases you may need to be scouting for.”
Producers who tried pulses “once upon a time” might be worried about lodging, but “standability of peas has greatly increased with the introduction of new genetics and better lines,” said Rosaasen. “We do recommend rolling in peas and lentils to ensure that you push any stones down below the surface and allow for a smooth contour.”
Field selection is particularly important for lentils, added Olson.
“You want to avoid rocky fields,” he said. “You want to be able to roll your land because it’s a crop that’s close to the ground for harvest.”
Producers also need to be careful about herbicide residues.
“With drier conditions, a lot of the herbicides just don’t break down as quickly as they would normally,” said Olson. “I would strongly recommend that before they put a seed in the ground, guys should go to their Blue Book and make sure the products they’ve used aren’t going to be haunting us.”
In drier conditions, which we’re likely to see again in 2016, producers should also try to seed into moisture — “within reason.”
“In a dry year, don’t be afraid to seed a little deeper than usual. If you’re between two inches and 2.5 inches deep, that’s OK,” he said. “If you seed too shallow, you could get germination and have the small plantlet being stranded in dry conditions.
“You’d be better off to seed deeper than shallower in a year that’s dry.”