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For up-and-coming pulses, agronomy work is key

After five years studying faba bean agronomy, this researcher still believes strongly in the crop. Now, she wants to understand the potential and reality of lupins.

You can talk about which pulse crop has the most protein. You can debate which is easier or harder to harvest. But when it comes to a pulse crop that has big potential but is frustratingly difficult to figure out? That’s faba bean.

Robyne Davidson has spent the past five years working on faba bean agronomy, and she’s a flat-out fan of the crop.

“It’s a fantastic crop that has great potential in a crop rotation, even better than field pea,” said Davidson, Lacombe-based applied research scientist with Lakeland College. “They stand better than peas, there’s less disease concern and it’s not a hard crop to work with. Faba beans are horrible in dry years, where peas have problems in wet years.”

From 2016 to 2020, Davidson researched faba bean from several angles, including disease protection and crop nutrition. Her goal was to answer key agronomic questions for a crop that has been little-studied compared to other pulses. In several instances, faba bean defied expectations for what ought to work.

Anecdotally, some will tell you that macro-nutrients (K & S) and micro-nutrients (such as boron) can give faba beans a healthy boost. With peas known to benefit from a fungicide treatment, Davidson tested the application of multiple pea fungicides on faba bean. Neither nutrition nor fungicide moved the needle as much as expected.

“For the most part, faba beans aren’t as sensitive to macro- and micro-nutrients as we would have thought,” she said. “We also didn’t find that the fungicide was that beneficial.”

Focus turns to lupins

Many pulse farmers, knowing that Davidson is working on lupins, have emailed her asking for some seed. Her answer is a polite not yet.

“Lupins have high protein and they stand well, but there’s just so much we don’t know about this crop,” Davidson said. “Commercially launching a crop too quickly will ensure limited producer uptake later. I personally feel we need to be cautious until we have learned more.”

That’s the goal of a new, three-year project being funded by Alberta Pulse Growers and Results Driven Agriculture Research. Davidson wants to address some of the agronomic concerns that would quickly come to light if growers started planting lupins at scale. As with faba beans until recently, lupins have not yet had the agronomic research scrutiny they need.

“This is not a crop you can put in and forget about,” Davidson explained. “Lupins are prone to shattering and they lack a good herbicide package. When farmers ask about lupins, I tell them the crop needs 8-10 inches of rain, and many areas in Alberta don’t get that.”

Davidson will spend the next three years attempting to unravel some of the unknowns about lupins. She’s determined not to give growers too much hope until the basics of this crop are better understood.

“We need to put a crop in the hands of producers that they can be successful with,” Davidson said. “With lupins, the potential is there but not yet. People look at lupins as they do soybeans – but in my view, we’re not there with soybeans either.”