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Guest Opinions

On the Lookout for Another Crop

Written by Jeremiah Vardiman


By Jeremiah Vardiman, 
UW Extension Educator

It is not uncommon to hear from our agriculture community that they are always interested in possible new markets or new commodities with established markets to support the economic means of their operation. Montana and North Dakota have done just that with pulse crops over the past two decades. Since the 1990s the production of U.S. food legumes has moved from the Palouse region, which includes eastern Washington, Idaho and eastern Oregon, to the Northern Plains, which is comprised of Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. By 2009, North Dakota and Montana became the largest and second largest producers of pulse crops, respectively.

So what is a pulse crop? A pulse crop is an annual legume grown for human or animal consumption, defined as those crops grown solely for the dry seed, such as lentils, dry peas and chickpeas.

Pulse crops exclude crops like green beans or fresh peas. There is only one class of lentils that is grown for grain and used for human consumption, along with chickpeas, which are solely grown as a grain for human consumption. Dry peas can be harvested for livestock forage or grain intended for livestock or human consumption.

So why discuss pulse crops for Wyoming when cattle dominate the state’s agriculture industry and hay production leads the state’s crop production? Pulses, especially for livestock consumption, are very easy to incorporate into the different cropping systems found throughout Wyoming. Pulse crops can be incorporated into hay fields, rotated into wheat/fallow production or utilized in other seed cropping systems. So no matter what crop you are growing, pulse crops could have a potential place in your rotation.

Undoubtedly the best fit for pulse crops in Wyoming would probably be dry field peas since they make a great livestock feed source. Field pea varieties fall into two primary classes, green and yellow. In Montana, yellow pea types tend to out-produce green pea types by approximately 10 percent, however yields vary strongly among varieties within both classes.

All field pea varieties are acceptable for livestock feed and are quite nutritious. An important benefit to field peas is the ability to directly feed to livestock without having to go through the extrusion heating process used in soybeans. Field pea grain contains approximately 21-25 percent protein that can be easily cracked or ground into grain rations, while field pea forage is approximately 18-20 percent protein.

Field peas can be inter-seeded into small grains, such as oats or millet, for hay production to increase the protein concentration of the forage by two to four percent while also increasing the relative feed value. Additional nutrition benefits to field peas are the high level of carbohydrates and low fiber content. They also contain 86-87 percent total digestible nutrients.

In a wheat/fallow cropping system, field peas can be grown as a green manure or green fallow crop by directly seeding into stubble. Cropping field peas into a fallow field maintains or improves the soil and productivity of the future crop. When compared to black fallow, the benefits of green fallow include improved soil fertility, exploitation of rotational crop benefits, protection of soil from erosion and substitution of water loss from evaporation or leaching to transpiration from plant growth.

Since field peas are legumes, they do fix nitrogen and, hence, need to be inoculated with a strain of Rhizobium bacteria. The rule of thumb on the amount of nitrogen fixed is 1.25 pounds of residual nitrogen per acre for every bushel of peas. Green fallowing can increase dryland spring wheat yields from an average of 35 bushels per acre to an average of 39 bushels per acre.

Field peas can also be planted in other seed cropping systems such as barley, dry beans, sugarbeets, sunflower and corn. Field peas can be used as an additional crop in the rotation, as a companion crop and as ground cover to hold soils between crops. Other possibilities may also exist, depending on the individual operation.

Field peas can be grown in a wide range of soil types from sandy to heavy clay, with moisture requirements similar to those of cereal grains. However, fields that have a history of perennial weed problems, from species such as quackgrass, Canada thistle, perennial sowthistle and field bindweed, should be avoided. Pulse crops should also not be considered for fields that have been sprayed with herbicides that have a long residual effect such as Finesse, Glean or similar chemicals.

For more information on pulse crops, contact your local Extension Office.