Soybeans show promise as alternative prairie crop

His real name is John Kowalchuk, but many call him Mr. Soybeans. And he comes by the moniker honestly. For four years now, he’s been planting, growing, harvesting and, most importantly, studying soybeans on his Rumsey, AB farm, which is roughly 90 kilometres east of the No.2 highway, about half way between Calgary and Red Deer. Not exactly soybean country.

“I’ve been growing yellow peas for about 20 years,” says Kowalchuk. “But we have aphanomyces here, so I wanted to try something new. ” So why soybeans in an area with iffy heat units and definite moisture limitations? Well, you could say Kowalchuk loves a challenge, but it’s much more than that.

As he sees it, farmers are going to need to diversify their crops some day soon. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but he thinks there will come a point when the environmental and agronomic challenges facing many key prairie crops are going to mean they can’t be grown in the usual way.

He wonders, for example, what will happen when clubroot, which nearly surrounds his area, makes profitable canola production next to impossible. Genetic resistance to clubroot is part of the answer, but resistance breaks down over time so it’s a continual cat and mouse game where breeders try to stay ahead of disease and disease always adapts.

So Kowalchuk’s work with soybeans isn’t just about finding an aphanomycesproof alternative for his pea acres, it’s about finding a profitable oilseed alternative for canola, which is a pretty bold idea — one that took some selling on his part.

FINDING A BELIEVER

“It was 2013 when I started thinking about soybeans,” says Kowalchuk. “I did a lot of research, talked to a lot of people but no one would sell me any soybeans.” He called seed companies and suppliers across the country, but the prevailing view at the time was that soybeans would not grow in his area, plus there was no local distribution system to easily get product to him, so no one would touch it.

Finally, in early 2015, a local DEKALB dealer said he could help and talked to Kowalchuk about running a variety trial. “I said that if I was going to do that, I didn’t want it to be just one year,” he says. “If we were going to do this, I wanted to do it for five years.” In other words, he wanted to collect some meaningful data on soybean production.

“I got the soybeans the day before I planted them,” says Kowalchuk, adding that it was a local UFA dealer that finally managed to deliver them. That first year, he planted a 10-acre variety trial and a 30- acre commercial field of his own. “I had 2260 in the main field and the plot had four DEKALB varieties. Some of them should never have made it given our heat units, but I took them all to maturity.” He’s proud of that last fact, as he should be.

EXPERIENCE IS THE BEST TEACHER

This spring, Kowalchuk will plant his fifth 10-acre variety trial with six to seven varieties to test, and his fifth commercial field of soybeans (40 acres). He says he’s learned a lot about growing this crop in » this region over the last four years and he’s amassed a huge amount of data.

“I’m working on the agronomics for my area,” he says. It’s not just about seeding dates and depths, either. He’s recorded, for instance, that air temperature at seeding time is highly influential and specific. “Having a constant 18 to 20 degrees for that first week after seeding is important so that the first moisture is warm.”

Ground temperature, he says, will stay fairly constant, but warm air means warm rain and dews which the plants read as signals that it’s “safe” to grow. “It’s like if there’s cold moisture right off the bat, they start to protect themselves and save energy that would otherwise go to plant and pod development,” says Kowalchuk. “It’s like they have a little computer in there, or a memory that tells them when it’s safe to use that energy to grow.”

Soybeans are always his last crop in — sometimes seeding as late as the last week of May — to give the ground time to warm up sufficiently. He’s taken to seeding soybeans in the afternoon, when the ground is at its warmest. And he pays attention to the soil type he seeds into.

“I have three kinds of soil here,” says Kowalchuk. “In the first year, I put soybeans on sandy light soil. Since then, I’ve put them on what I call intermediate soil, which is getting into the heavy clay, but is still light enough and has fairly good organic matter. I have heavy clay here, too but I’ve not tried the soybeans on that because it is too cool.”

He tracks everything, including daily heat units and moisture levels since he started this venture, posting it all to his Twitter feed — @KowalchukFarms — for all to see. He’s also never grown a profitable soybean crop, but he’s come close.

“What I see right now is late season moisture is the limiting factor,” says Kowalchuk. “Earlier in the season, I’d put my soybeans up against anyone’s, they look so good. But in central Alberta, the tap turns off by the late season.”

Except in 2016. As many will recall, that year saw a lot of late season rain and even snow. Kowalchuk says he got 16 inches of rain that fall, and his soybeans loved it. “I combined at the end of October and they came off dry. I had a 36-bushel average for the 80 acres I planted. It was the only time I had those pod clusters at the top of the canopy, and the yield monitor pushed 70 bushels in some places.”

WHY DO IT?

First of all because he can: Kowalchuk already had the equipment to handle soybean production. “I have 10-inch spacing on my air seeder and can single shoot inoculant and seed,” he says. “And I already had a flex straight cut header for my peas and I had the roller.” The flex header makes a big difference since soybeans have a lower pod height than peas.

He also has access to crop insurance on what is, effectively, an experimental crop. The New Crop Insurance Initiative (NCII), introduced by Alberta’s Agriculture Financial Services Corporation (AFSC) in 2015, encourages non-traditional crop production. “Any new crop you want to try, you can try it,” says Kowalchuk. It’s not perfect, he says, but it’s something, which is more than a lot of western soybean growers get.

The marketing is easy, too. He got $11. 40/bu for last year’s soybeans from a processor not far away in Lethbridge. “The reason I liked soybeans was because they had a consistent, established market, whereas with crops like flax and faba beans it’s harder to find buyers in some years.”

But second, and most importantly, he does this because he fervently believes it’s necessary to develop more crop options.

“We need the economics of a canola in our rotations,” he says. “Maybe soybeans can be it. Not yet maybe, but 10 years ago, who’d have thought that soybeans could grow in Saskatchewan? Who’s to say that in 10 years we won’t see genetics get even better for yield and early maturity?”

Will soybeans be the money maker for western farmers that canola is today? Over the four years of growing them, Kowalchuk has averaged 25 bushels per acre, which isn’t great compared to the 50-, 60- and even 70-bushel crops Ontario can produce.

But if breeders could put late-season drought tolerance in short-season western varieties, yields here could move into a profitable range. The shorter season and lower heat units mean yields will always be a bit lower than Ontario, but maybe our expectations of what a good yield is need to be adjusted.

As Kowalchuk points out, 20 years ago, a 30-bushel canola crop was totally acceptable. “Our expectations are so high now,” he says. “Maybe the high-side potential of soybeans is not as high, but the low side is not as low, either. ” Indeed, Kowalchuk says if he could get a consistent 30 bu/ac yield, that would be sufficient to make soybeans a regular part of his rotation.

There’s a third reason Kowalchuk does this, one that wasn’t quite expected when he started out. He says that everything he’s learned and observed through growing soybeans had made him look at his other crops in a new light, pay attention to practices that he used to not think about at all and apply what he’s learning where it makes sense.

“If you really want to challenge yourself as a farmer, grow a crop you’ve never grown,” he says. “It’s taught me to be a better farmer.”