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Fababeans: our next Cinderella crop

A nitrogen-fixing legume that doesn’t have us competing with U.S. farmers could be an opportunity

Before you start — the headline is a bit of a stretch at this point but hopefully you will read on to learn more.

The first department head of the newly constituted Soil Science Department, University of Saskatchewan (1919) was Roy Hanson, a soil microbiologist. His first observation was “we need to grow legume crops to arrest the sharp drop in soil nitrogen that has happened with just a few years of cultivation.”

Legume crops at that time were perennial — alfalfa, clovers, etc. Perennial legumes in rotation and green manure crops were a mainstay of soil conservation in Europe, the U.K. and eastern North America. But, they failed miserably in the northern Great Plains in the U.S. and the Palliser Triangle in Western Canada. Alfalfa is a big “suck” for water and lowers the water table over time. The first crops after a perennial forage of any kind were a bust unless a super wet year came along.

Fast forward to the 1970s. The newly formed Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan had a mandate to develop new crops to reduce reliance on wheat. This was especially true in the brown and dark brown soil zones where canola was not suited. At that time canola (then called rapeseed) was considered to be a black soil zone crop.

fababean plant

This is the “business” end of a fababean plant. Huge, blood red nodules fix gobs of nitrogen. Fababeans fix more nitrogen than other annual legumes.
photo: Les Henry

The young Crop Development Centre was able to recruit Dr. Al Slinkard, a pulse crop breeder, to Saskatchewan from the U.S. Pacific Northwest of the. Al quickly established lentil as a viable crop for the drier regions. Lentil was especially adapted to the clay belt of west central Saskatchewan and the Regina plains. The crop not only survived in the drier years, but thrived. Level land with no stones was ideal for a short crop like lentils. In the R.M. of Milden No. 286, where this old scribe was raised, much of the net worth of many farmers today is a result of lentil over the past 30 years or so.

It was our great fortune in the 1970s to work with Al on the water and nutrient requirements of many crops, including lentil, pea and fababean. The work showed that lentil was not a great irrigation crop, but fababean was.

Saskatchewan has become the world leader in lentil export and pea is also an important crop. On my little farm, growing pea every four year has been an important part of the rotation since 2001.

But, the current wet spell and disease of both pea and lentil have required a rethink of crops. Many farmers I have talked to are ready to give up on pea as a crop because of disease. To include a new legume, many have opted for soybeans, and some quite successfully. But, there have been busts along the way also.

But, why do we want to compete head on with soybean growers in the U.S. (and the U.S. treasury) and huge acres in Brazil? A big push for soybean is the companies that want to sell us expensive seed. And, we do not need or even want another glyphosate-resistant crop.

Glyphosate is a major kingpin in our current zero-till, continuous-crop agriculture. Without glyphosate we must rethink our entire cropping system in much of Western Canada. And, the more glyphosate resistant crops we have the quicker resistant weeds will come along.

Fababean was grown in the 1970s in the irrigation area at Outlook and in the Norquay region of east central Saskatchewan — a wet area. At that time straight cut headers were not used so fababeans were swathed. They made a miserable swath and if it got wet it was bad news.

The crop all but disappeared but is making a comeback. Folks I have talked to that grew them this year have all straight cut the crop. Fababean is a longer season crop but it can be seeded early like peas.

For fababean to become an important crop the research priority is market development — particularly the attributes of the bean itself and uses for it. That is what made canola a “made in Canada” crop. The Americans were very slow to take up canola, leaving most of the market to us. Maybe we can do the same with fababean?

Our Crop Development Center, University of Saskatchewan, (Bert Vandenberg and colleagues) has an active fababean program. Let us cheer them on and make sure resources are in place to develop a crop that can complete the legume requirement for long-term rotation success.

About the author

Columnist

Les Henry

J.L.(Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms at Dundurn, Sask. He recently finished a second printing of “Henry’s Handbook of Soil and Water,” a book that mixes the basics and practical aspects of soil, fertilizer and farming. Les will cover the shipping and GST for “Grainews” readers. Simply send a cheque for $50 to Henry Perspectives, 143 Tucker Cres., Saskatoon, Sask., S7H 3H7, and he will dispatch a signed book.

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