Pulses Are Good Business

Pulse crops such as faba beans, peas, lentils and soybeans are popular choices among prairie farmers as rotational crops for many reasons including their nitrogen fixing properties and a growing international market

Like most farmers, Rod Bradshaw decides what to grow based on customer demand — a simple rule that’s helped him run a successful farm for more than 30 years. On his 850-acre operation, Beck Farms, located just west of Bowden, AB, he grows mainly canola and cereals and sets aside about 50 acres for vegetables. Bradshaw’s farm is a testament to changing demands by customers as well as improved genetics and agronomics for pulses.

In the ’90s he began to experiment with different rotational crops. First he thought flax would be the answer, but it never penciled out. Eventually, he settled on faba beans even though there were few options for crop protection in those days and it didn’t take long for lygus bugs and five-foot cleavers to make their presence known.

Bradshaw continued to experiment while at the same time genetics for faba beans and other pulse crops continued to improve for prairie climates. In 2008/09, Bradshaw gave the beans another chance. This time, he was pleasantly surprised. The first year yielded higher than expected at 79 bushels per acre. Now, Bradshaw consistently gets about 55 bushels per acre.

Bradshaw is pleased with his choice because of the crop’s improved agronomics and nitrogen fixing, which reduces his total input costs. “We are getting more nitrogen benefit from faba beans versus peas,” says Bradshaw. “You can put a little in the bank because you’re not buying commercial fertilizer.”

Indeed, the nitrogen fixing properties from pulses is just one of the crop’s many benefits, according to Nevin Rosaasen, policy and programs specialist with the Alberta Pulse Growers Commission. “Pulse crops can break the disease cycle by having another crop in the rotation and the additional nitrogen means you have lower cash requirements for fertilizer.” And he adds, on average, farmers planting hard red spring wheat on pulse stubble can expect one full point of protein and a 15 per cent bump in canola yields.

In addition, nitrogen from faba beans is more readily available in the second year because its thick stalk takes longer to mineralize. Farmers have seen other benefits too, such as reduced fuel usage driving through pulse stubble and noticeable soil tilth improvements due to pulse residue, says Rosaasen.

The differences that used to separate pulse crops and canola has shrunk and it’s almost becoming an annual toss-up of what to plant. At a $10 to $11 return on soybeans, which can be similar to canola, Rosaasen says soybeans are a pretty competitive crop in a farmer’s rotation. “It’s pretty close when you factor in the decreased cost for nitrogen fertilizer and the cost for dollars per bushel per acre,” he says. It’s these kinds of numbers that are convincing farmers to choose pulses and soybeans more often over more traditional prairie crops such as wheat, barley and oats.

And the marketing is easier too, says Rosaasen. “Soybeans can be crushed easier and sent to feed lots and hog barns. And the assurance that you can move your soybeans is another reason we have seen an increase.”

Massive growth in prairie pulses

“Increase” is a modest way of describing the rise of pulse crops on the prairies. Statistics Canada data shows that between 2012 and 2017, 8.3 million metric tonnes (MMT) of soybeans have come from Manitoba alone, including 2.24 MMT in 2017. This year, spring wheat and soybeans are virtually neck-and-neck at 2.65 and 2.29 MMT, respectively.

In Saskatchewan, the top pulse crop seesaws between peas and lentils. Both saw production of 12.9 MMT during that same time period, although the province has had diversified crops for considerably longer than both Manitoba and Alberta.

Now, Alberta farmers are catching on. That province has produced no less than 1.2 MMT of dry peas since 2012 including 1.99 MMT in 2017, a far cry from 2000, when only 620,000 thousand tonnes was produced. Lentils have become increasingly popular as well — from almost nothing in 2006 to 506,000 thousand tonnes in 2016.

Changing international markets

With such high production numbers, the question is where are these pulse crops headed? The short answer is “all over.” Saskatchewan has been producing record numbers of peas and lentils in recent years, most of which finds their way to India, Bangladesh, Egypt, the United States and China.

“There’s an insatiable demand from China for soybeans with over 90 million tonnes of imports per year,” says Rosaasen. “That was Chinese policy; the country wanted to be self-sufficient in wheat, corn and rice. However, the demand for soy oil for cooking as well as meal for feeding hogs in China means there’s a big demand for oilseeds.”

Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s Neil Blue analyzes crops and knows the power of pulses. He says that farmers are approaching a floor price now of about $6 to $6.50 per bushel of peas, a big drop due to a recent 50 per cent tariff by the Indian government. He says it’s typical to sell soybeans for $10/bushel. And while faba bean prices are slightly more variable, $5 per bushel seems to be a stable minimum, it can go up to around $8 for the highquality, human consumption market. Lentils have seen recent prices of $0.20 to $0.25 while greens are slightly higher at $0.30 to $0.40.

“I’m not really surprised with the way things have gone,” says Blue. Farmers look for opportunities to have both stable or better income and ways to use pulses for rotational benefits. Peas have long been recognized as having rotational benefits. I think it’s a real driver for farmers to have these kinds of crops included in the rotation.”

Back at Beck Farms, Bradshaw admits he’s been impressed with pulse crops and the in-field benefits, but that can’t be the whole story to be successful. “Every crop needs to have a market,” he says. “You can’t grow something just because it agronomically works for you. There always has to be a use for it. If we can’t sell it, we won’t grow it.” ff