Tap into the global potential of pulses

The United Nations (UN) declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. No one expects cake or fireworks, but with markets priced for profit and a growing number of varieties and types to choose from, the Canadian pulse industry should hit record production levels in 2016 — and still not outpace global demand. Is it any wonder pulse growers have one question for prairie farmers who haven’t yet worked them into their rotations: “What are you waiting for?”

The UN declaration is an international high five to provinces like Saskatchewan where pulse crops are expected to hit 20 per cent of total seeded acreage in 2016, says Carl Potts, executive director of Saskatchewan Pulse Growers (SPG).

Most of those 10 million acres will be seeded to varieties of dry peas and lentils developed with home-grown ingenuity that’s made Canada the world’s largest producer and exporter of those two commodities. Indeed, the country’s industry currently ships pulses, including chickpeas and dry beans, to more than 150 countries.

Fuelling an industry valued at more than $4.2 billion, are exports. The majority of Canadian-grown pulses are sold to south Asian countries where the population is growing significantly but production is not keeping up with demand, says Potts. “Because western Canadian farmers are among the most competitive pulse crop producers in the world, we can meet demand from traditional food markets and from markets driven by increased interest in health, nutrition and environmental sustainability.”

Positioned for growth

Bert Vandenberg says the Canadian pulse industry has a lot of untapped potential. A plant breeder with the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan, Vandenberg has been developing pulse varieties since he moved to Saskatchewan in 1983. At that time, he says: “Canada was one of the few places on earth where farmers didn’t know much about legumes.”

Corey Loessin, an SPG board member since 2013, has been growing peas and lentils near Radisson, SK since 1991. Returns fluctuate with cash markets, but pulses are profitable, he says. He also likes what the crops do to improve soil tilth and nutrient levels on his farm.

Science supports Loessin’s contention, says Vandenberg. “Legumes are a natural part of healthy biological plant systems and that makes pulse crops a good fit with crop diversification,” he says. “Pulses have allowed us to decrease summer fallow, increase cropping intensity and diversify crop ecology — and they are good for the soil.”

The pulse crop’s capacity to fix soil nitrogen and make it available to next year’s crop is just the start, says Neil Whatley, a crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AAF). By extending rotations, pulse crops positively impact disease and weed pressures. Because pulses are more shallow-rooted than cereals and oilseeds, their root systems improve soil moisture penetration and the soil’s capacity to hold water. Pulses are also a good fit with conservation tillage practices. “The decomposing roots and nitrogen fixing nodules on the roots create a nitrogen flush for the next crop,” says Whatley.

Loessin says those agronomic advantages save him money. Now growing green and yellow peas and red lentils, he does not add any supplemental nitrogen to fields with pulse crops. “We notice that wheat crops grown on pea stubble produce per cent higher in protein,” says Loessin.

Looking ahead, Vandenberg says he foresees a time when farmers will think beyond four-year rotations. “What if you had two pulse crops and you grew them every eight years? You might have peas in year one and again in year nine, but faba beans in year four.” According to Vandenberg, this would provide all the benefits of including legumes in rotation while simultaneously reducing disease pressure and herbicide resistance.

Getting a handle on production

As for what it takes to grow pulse crops in Canada, there’s no question these crops demand different field strategies, says Whatley. Based in Stettler, AB, his office services a region of east-central Alberta where pulses, particularly lentils and peas, are rapidly gaining ground.

Whatley says floating or flex headers are an industry staple for harvest and producers know they have to roll pulsecrop fields after seeding. The rolling pushes rocks into the soil, making harvest easier.

He recommends seeding into fields with good drainage, since water-logged soil isn’t good for legumes. “I tell guys to think about seeding early, too. Make your pulse crop your first crop so it can grow to the flowering stage before the July heat causes the flowers to abort.”

And seed inoculation is critical, adds Whatley. “Every pulse needs a different rhizobia strain so you have to know what your crop needs to make sure you don’t waste your money.”

Loessin, who worked for AAF in northern Alberta before returning home to farm, says production information is easy to get from industry and extension specialists. “If you’re new to pulses, there is a lot experience to draw from.” FF

3 Pulse Positives

1. Lower input costs. Pulses fix nitrogen and make it available to next year’s crop. Data from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry shows that nitrogen equals double-digit yield increases in canola, wheat and barley grown after a pulse crop.

2. Improved soil health. Adding pulses to a four-year crop rotation plan improves the water-holding capacity of soil.

3. Multiple markets. Pulse crops are sold into human, animal and ingredient markets — all of which are growing. These are the crops the world wants.