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Faba Bean Rookie Round Up (PCN Fall 2013) OCT 21 2013 | Consumers and Producers | Pulse Crop News

This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Pulse Crop News.

Sarah Weigum

You basically had to be living under a rock (or maybe in Palm Springs) last winter not to hear about faba beans – the pulse family’s new “it girl.” From FarmTech in Edmonton to production meetings at the local hall, everyone was talking about this legume that has been cultivated for thousands of years but is experiencing a surge of popularity in Western Canada.

If the faba bean had an online dating profile, it would probably read something like this: “I’m a great catch who loves to fix my own nitrogen. I’m big on protein, and there’s nothing I like better than to stand up tall right until harvest time.” But what you might not find out until the third or fourth date is that she tends to be tardy, getting to the harvest party up to a month later than your old steady, the field pea.

A number of producers around the province (including yours truly) took the plunge and asked fabas to the dance this year. Here’s what we learned.

I first heard about faba beans at an Alberta Pulse Growers meeting in November 2012. A discussion with fellow seed grower, Dennis Benci of Benci Seeds in Carmangay, prompted further research into the crop. I learned that there are high-tannin varieties that are preferred by human consumers in foreign markets, but are not very digestible by animals, as well as low or no-tannin varieties that are better suited for the feed market. Like other pulse crops, faba beans fix their own nitrogen through a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria. They leave nitrogen in the soil after they are harvested, so can provide savings on fertilizer both in the year they are grown and the year following.

Pulses are a familiar site on our farm at Three Hills. My dad grew his first 12 acre plot of yellow peas in 1990, and we’ve benefited from having a pulse crop in our rotation ever since. Genetics have improved in the last 30 years, and on an average year, a well-managed pea crop is fairly easy to combine, with their early maturity spreading out the harvest work load. However, there are still years when, either due to weather, disease, or both, the vines go flat on the ground, and we combine a few rocks with our peas. These difficult years scare away many growers, and although peas are a large part of our retail seed business, we still have many customers who will not grow them.

Thick-stalked faba beans stand tall. I’ve travelled around central Alberta this summer checking out bean fields, and to my eyes, there is no such things as a lodged faba bean. We hope that the standability of this crop encourages more farmers to grow pulses.

Alex Bickely, a Sylvan Lake-area farmer, is counting on this good standability. I caught up with him at his faba field in mid-August and almost got lost in the six-foot high crop. All the plants were upright, although there was some moulding of pods right on the plant. Alex said this was one of his wetter quarters, so that explains the height of the fabas, which seems to vary greatly depending on the amount of moisture the plants receive. If the beans combine well, Alex hopes that fabas will become a regular part of his crop rotation.

“We had to learn how to grow something other than canola,” said Alex, who wants to extend his rotation from the cereal-canola duo.

Not too far from Alex, Michael and Allison Ammeter planted a field of fabas, optimistic that the crop would fit their farm as well.

“We had a buyer that encouraged us to plant [fabas], saying they would buy the harvest,” explained Allison. “Plus we like to try new things that look promising for our conditions.”

These conditions normally include lots of rain, which can lead to drown-out in peas. Unfortunately for the Ammeters, a June 29 hail storm hit their beans. While experienced faba bean growers and pulse specialists agreed that the beans would not mature given this setback, the Ammeters decided to leave the crop as is and see what happened.

“We were amazed at how the plants went from leafless sticks to ‘palm trees’–sticks with masses of leaves and blossoms on top — to healthy, but very late, plants. All the way, they were nodulating beautifully,” said Allison.

By late-August, their fabas were short, but it wasn’t hard to find plants with almost as many pods as un-hailed stands. Michael and Allison debated whether to silage the crop or plow it down, but after looking at other faba crops in their area, they decided to let the beans mature, hoping for 30 to 40 bushels per acre.

Elsewhere in the province, growing conditions have been very favourable, and faba beans were doing well late into the summer. Paul Wipf, farm boss at Viking Colony, described growing conditions in his region as some of the best he’s ever seen, and his 350 acres of faba beans were quite tall, with lots of pods. Paul first heard about faba beans from the nutritionist who advises the colony on livestock feed.

“I take an overall view of the farm here,” said Paul. “I’m not just a grain farmer. That’s why we grow corn for the dairy and the feedlot.”  With the high price of soymeal, Paul sees faba beans as an alternative feed source for their hogs.

“Faba beans can have as much as 29 per cent protein, where peas max out at 21 to 22 per cent,” said Paul. “I did the cost of protein energy, and faba beans, based on unit of protein per tonne, have a value of $30 per metric tonne more than peas.”

Like many other producers, Paul also sees the benefit of diversifying his crop rotation with a crop that should be easier to harvest than field peas. If harvest goes well, he expects to increase his faba bean acreage next year to give him more options in his rotation.

One challenge presented by faba beans that pea growers have not faced is their larger seed size. Faba beans can be two to three times larger than yellow peas, depending on the variety. Snowbirds, which are the lowtannin variety grown by Alex, the Ammeters, Paul, and me, are one of the smaller varieties, but even so, other growers cautioned me about using the paired-row opener on my drill to seed the beans. Paul had a similar concern about the openers on his Seed Hawk drill, so he decided to place the seed using the wider fertilizer opening. On our farm, we succeeded in using the openers we had without any plugging.

A little farther north of Paul, Zolton Yaremie is another first-time faba bean grower. A presentation on fabas by Mark Olson at FarmTech in January 2013 piqued his interest. His biggest challenge so far was locating seed. He spent hours searching for a seed supplier, eventually traveling to southern Alberta to buy Snowbird seed. I talked to several faba bean seed producers, and they all said they sold out in February or March, many with many orders that couldn’t be filled due to high demand.

Greg Stamp, seed grower near Enchant, has produced seed of both Snowbirds and a high-tannin variety destined for the export market for 10 years. His sales were up this year with more interest from new growers than in previous years.

“The marketing of faba beans was always the problem,” said Greg. Growers wanted to be sure they could sell their production, but buyers needed to know there was a steady supply in the market before they would commit to purchasing high volumes. A concerted market development effort by some producers and grain handling companies, including SaskCan Pulse Trading and Parkland Alberta Commodities in Innisfail, has opened new doors.

“I think the marketing [of faba beans] has gotten better, allowing growers confidence to grow and sell the crop,” explained Greg. He worked with SaskCan Pulse to provide his seed customers with production contracts for the high-tannin variety known as FB 9-4.

Noel Flitton farms with his dad and brother near Vulcan. They were looking for a pulse to grow on their irrigated land, and the FB 9-4 variety seemed like a good fit. While most faba growers I know (myself included) did not apply fungicide, irrigation farmers like Noel often opt for a fungicide application. In Noel’s case, he applied Lance through his irrigation system.

Like other pulses, inoculants should be placed with faba bean seed to ensure that the nitrogen-fixing rhizobia are close to the developing root. As of spring 2013, the only registered faba bean inoculant was a self-stick peat that had to be applied right before seeding because there is a short window of viability for these bacteria once they are applied to treated seed. Noel had to re-inoculate some beans after having to put seeding on hold to replace worn out metering augers on his air cart. I almost forgot to inoculate the first cart load of seed entirely and had to empty the hopper and re-fill while shaking on the self-stick inoculant. Fortunately, a more stable granular inoculant is now registered for application with faba beans.

For weed control, registered products on faba beans include Odyssey DLX, Basagran, and Solo. On our farm, we used Odyssey DLX, there were some bronzed spots on the leaves after spraying but the plant seemed to grow out of it without any obvious long-term damage. Hopefully more research will follow as faba bean acreage increases.

In late August, harvest management was on the minds of the growers I interviewed. When I planted my fabas, I honestly didn’t know if I would need to desiccate or not. I knew dryland farmers south of the Trans-Canada who do not desiccate and faba producers farther north who normally do. Given the high rainfall we and most other areas of the province received, I can guarantee that a lot of acres will be desiccated this fall. As a seed grower, I opt to use desiccants like Reglone as opposed to glyphosate because glyphosate harms the germination potential of the seed.

Regardless of the product, Sheri Strydhorst of Alberta Agriculture recommends applying the desiccant when 80 to 90 per cent of the leaves have dropped off and pods are starting to mature. She also suggests farmers keep an eye on the calendar and the forecast. It is better to swath or desiccate than allow an early frost to reduce the quality of the beans. September 7 is a date to keep in mind for shutting down the plants.

We plan to straight cut our faba beans, and I had a number of people ask me to tell them when the combine is rolling so they can come see how it goes. When I asked experienced faba bean growers what they expect for yield, a common phrase I heard was “as good as peas or better.” My conservative estimate is 50 bushels per acre. My peas are already in the bin and did better than that, but I still theoretically have 20 days to wait before the beans are mature, so I don’t want to be too optimistic.

I’ve learned a lot growing faba beans and talking to other faba bean growers this year. If there’s one thing we did right on our farm this year (by pure luck), it was growing the faba beans next to the highway and putting a sign up. I’ve never had so many people stop by to check out a crop. It helps that they look so different from anything else grown in the area. As Noel said, “They looked really strange when they came up, and they still look really strange.”

My dad just says he wished he could grow something every year that would bring this much traffic in the yard. We have had several people tell us they want to book seed for next year, and hopefully, we can join the ranks of those sold-out faba bean seed growers. I’ll be publishing a post-harvest update in Grainews in November, and if you’re just hearing about faba beans for the first time now, keep your eyes and ears open as there are a lot more faba bean growers to talk to now than there was a year ago.