Alternative crop info gatheredWritten by Christy Hemken
“We’re looking for something with lower inputs, primarily in fuel, fertilizer and seed costs,” says PREC Research Associate Randy Violet, who, along with other researchers, is analyzing these alternative crops in the Big Horn and Wind River basins.
“We’re constantly looking for profit potential and giving producers more return per acre,” he says, adding that water conservation also plays into the research. “In our location we’re very blessed with water availability even in drought, but as researchers we need to be ahead of the curve and start thinking about conservation.”
Through PREC’s variety trials Violet says, “We try to see if we can find varieties to fit into our area’s production scheme in management issues such as cultivation, herbicide work and fertilizer application. Then when a producer approaches us with an interest in growing, for example, lentils, we can help them get started.”
Currently the Center maintains soybeans, lentils, chickpeas, dry peas and sunflowers, among other crops.
“We’ve recently began working with confection sunflowers, which are primarily an export market,” says Violet, explaining the Europeans buy them and eat them like peanuts. “The objective of confection sunflowers is size – we need a large seed size. Confections came to the forefront of this work because there’s an added value to them.”
He says confection sunflowers are worth 20 cents more per pounds than the oilseed sunflowers. “Last year oils were worth 24 to 28 cents per pound, and growers were selling confections for $40 per hundredweight. That’s exciting because our yields in this area are extremely good.”
A grower in the Heart Mountain area has cooperated with the Center for four years. Violet says they were impressed with variety trials from last year.
“The contracts are set up with a premium for large seeds and half that price for anything that falls through the screen,” says Violet. “We were looking at 60 percent staying on top of screen at the Center, but our cooperator got 85 percent of his seeds to stay.”
Last season the Center worked a lot with planting density and fertility. “We’ve got a pretty good handle now on how to get 80 percent of the seeds to stay above the screen,” says Violet.
“One of the huge advantages in the Big Horn Basin with sunflowers is we have no insect damage and no diseases, and we have not had any bird problems,” says Violet.
Of the results of the sunflower work, Violet says, “We have very good yields with very little inputs. There are contracts available, and you can look at a gross per acre of at least $1,000.”
Another plus to sunflowers is the equipment they require. “You don’t have to buy more implements or equipment, just a set of pans for $2,000 and you’re ready to go if you’re already a barley grower. Capital expenditure is very minimal.”
Another crop PREC is researching is flax. “Flax is an oilseed crop we began working with two years ago, based on using is as a substitute for soybean meal in animal feed,” says Violet. “Since then flax has developed potential as a specialty crop for health food stores. If you Google flax the first 10 or 15 hits will be health food stores trying to sell it to you for $4 to $8 per pound.”
“Flax has tremendous potential for animal feed,” says Violet. “It will replace soybean meal in your ration, and it’s easy to grow.”
Prairie coneflower has received some research attention as a species for reclamation. Violet says there are producers growing the native broadleaf for seed in the Heart Mountain area, which is worth about $20 per pound, he cautions of the fickle reclamation market.
Soybean research has taken place on both seven- and 22-inch rows. “The seven-inch rows out-yielded the 22-inch rows by quite a bit,” says Violet. “If you’re interested in soybeans, you’re probably better off running them through your grain drill.”
He cautions growers about soybean markets. “We’ve been faced with a lot of inflated commodity crop prices in the last few years, and we just came off a record-setting year for soybeans, but it’s got to come back down to reality and we’ve got to start making comparisons because this year won’t be as good.”
He says over three years of research conventional soybeans have out-yielded Roundup Ready varieties. “I would venture to guess if we were to plant soybeans this year the paradigm would start moving to the advantage of Roundup Ready, because the genetic base has grown and seed companies and geneticists have made the shift from conventional to Roundup Ready.”
He says the crop that soybeans are most often compared to in the Big Horn Basin is dry beans. “They’re both legumes, and there’s probably no advantage in soybeans over dry beans,” he notes. “We’ve had some producers grow 30 or 40 acres of soybeans, and the deer harvested their crop.”
He says one use for Roundup Ready soybeans is on a new piece of ground when the new manager doesn’t know anything about the weed seed bank. “The Roundup component would be your advantage to clean up the field before going back in with your regular crop.”
In the lentil world, there are now Liberty Link and Clearfield varieties available. “When you start to get the large chemical companies playing in the genetics game of crops, you know there’s money somewhere,” says Violet. “One of the issues we have is weed control in lentils, and that’s now been addressed.”
He says lentils probably do not have an advantage over dry beans, as there are some disease issues and they are a challenge to harvest. “If we swath them and put them in a windrow, if any wind blows they roll up like a tumbleweed and you chase them around a lot.”
According to Violet, chickpeas are a neat crop to work with. However, palatability can be a problem. “If you have a rabbit in the vicinity, they will find it,” he says. However, the plants re-grew at the research station after the rabbits hit them and he says there’s a decent opportunity for a return on chickpeas.
Dry peas have a lot of potential in the area, says Violet. “There’s a true value to them as a seed crop, and on seven-inch rows we dramatically increased our yields. That’s how we’d recommend you plant them.”
The fertilizer program on dry peas is the same as dry beans, and Violet says not to forget to inoculate. “The average price has been around $7 per pound in the last five years, and at 3,000 pounds per acre that’s a pretty decent return. If you don’t like your bean contract, check into dry peas,” he says, noting there’s no wildlife problem on the dry peas in comparison to chickpeas.
The center runs research on all varieties of sainfoin, two of which were developed at UW. “The biggest thing for sainfoin is no bloat,” says Violet. “If you’re interested in grazing a legume and not having the expense of pouring nitrogen on it and making it safe, sainfoin’s a good option for you. The other advantage is weevils won’t get into it.”