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Soybeans In Southern Alberta

Over the past four years we have been raising soybeans on our farm in Tilley, Alta. This article chronicles our experiences along the way and where we see the crop going for our area in the future.

In 2006, we started experimenting with soybeans to see if they would work in our climate. Our farm is located between Brooks and Medicine Hat in the Eastern Irrigation District just south of the Trans-Canada Highway. On average we see approximately 2,450 CHUs (corn heat units) per growing season.

Years ago there was a push to get soybeans started in the area, but the length of season and other factors never allowed the crop to get off the ground. Our first attempt had been a conventional variety that soon made me realize the weed control issues were going to be front and centre. We ended the season a little disheartened, realizing that if soybeans were going to work in our region, there needed to be some major advances agronomically compared to what we had just encountered. We ended up with approximately 20 bushels per acre, and a field that needed some extra weed control next year.

Not giving up, we spent the winter looking into other types of varieties that would work on our farm. We discovered a number of things. The variety we had grown was developed for Ontario conditions with Ontario soil profiles: acid soil, low calcium and salinity levels. In addition, it was an indeterminate variety, which had the potential to keep growing and growing, not maturing in our climate until it hit the required number of CHU. On top of all that, it was a conventional variety that meant weed control was going to be an ongoing battle. So we set out to see if there was a variety that would address each of these issues.

After a bit of digging we came across a seed company that seemed to have an answer to what we were looking for. Quarry Seed in Stonewall, Man., the Canadian distributor for Legend Seeds, had varieties that were developed for the Dakota regions, which have a land profile more closely suited to ours. Their varieties were photosensitive, which meant that instead of relying on CHUs or growing degree days alone, the soybeans “sped up” their maturity as they sensed the daylight getting shorter and the nights getting cooler. In addition to this, their varieties were Roundup Ready, which meant that weed control would be significantly easier.

We were unsure which variety would work for us, so we decided to try their earliest-maturing LS0036RR in 2007. We seeded a small field and realized that summer that we were on to something great! We didn’t need specialized row crop equipment, as we seeded them with hoe drills on a seven-inch spacing. They fit well for seeding scheduling as we planted them after all our cereals were in. Weed control was a snap. All we did was hit them with Roundup when the weeds dictated. Incidentally, another plus we found was that unlike other Roundup-tolerant crops, RR soybeans can tolerate a higher rate of glyphosate, enabling the producer to use the crop for cleaning up a field of quack grass or Canada thistle and at any stage of the soybean’s growth.

When harvest came around it seemed a bit worrisome as our cereals had already been cut and laying for a week and the soybeans were still green like they were in July. Were these things going to make it? Sure enough, the first part of September saw just a few yellow patches showing up, and within four days, the whole field was yellow. By the end of September they were ready to harvest.

By raising soybeans we have eliminated the need to raise alfalfa on our farm, thereby getting rid of a complete line of specialized haying equipment.

We weren’t done our flax yet, so we let them stand, watching to see if there was going to be any significant shattering losses, or stems breaking off from standing too long. It was amazing to watch the resiliency of this crop. It stood perfectly with nothing lost on the ground. The yield was a bit higher also, running about 28 bushels per acre. Harvesting this crop was easy as there was no lodging to contend with.

In 2008 we expanded our soybean acres and our customers put in 700 acres. We seeded six other varieties in test plots to see if there were other varieties that would be better suited to our area. Unfortunately, the growing season was so cool (250 CHUs below normal) that the soybeans were quite a bit shorter than they should have been. As a result more pods were left behind, resulting in lower yields. We were, however, starting to get a better picture as to the regional suitability. The yields were starting to say something, as we had more soybeans out around southern Alberta, and more widespread yield data. Yields ranged from 12 bushels per acre to low 50s for a high. Interestingly, the plots seeded at home showed another shining star — LS0065RR. It had grown about 30 per cent taller than the LS0036RR that we had been using. Yields were noticeably higher as well, and the decision was made to start growing the newer variety as it seemed to be working better in side-by-side trials.

When we got to 2009, LS0065RR dominated as the variety of choice. Agronomically, they were much taller off the ground, and were podding higher as well, which translated to higher yield. Despite the fact it was on average 125 CHUs cooler than our seven-year average, harvest this year saw much better results with the majority of the yields in the 35-to 56-bushel-per-acre range.

One customer commented that his dryland durum this fall ran eight bushels per acre higher on his ’08 soybean stubble and had 0.9 percentage points more protein compared to the rest of the section that did not have soybeans on it. This is not surprising given the fact that soybeans fix 30 to 50 pounds of nitrogen for the following year.

One thing we have realized over the past four years is that even though you don’t need to have specialized equipment to raise soybeans, it appears that a flex header will more than pay for itself on the first 100 acres.

What’s in store for 2010? With a bit of agronomic tweaking, we expect to see our top producers on irrigation coming in with 60 to 65 bushels per acre. We will be outsourcing third-party research trials, which we started in 2009 to give us relevant data that is specific to southern Alberta.

SOYBEANS MEAN NO MORE ALFALFA

Are soybeans here to stay? On our farm they are. Other producers are starting to realize this for their operations also. By raising soybeans we have eliminated the need to raise alfalfa on our farm, thereby getting rid of a complete line of specialized haying equipment. In addition to not having all the work and expense of haying in the summertime, we still have all the benefits that alfalfa offered. Here are a few reasons why soybeans work for our operation:

No specialized equipment required (although a flex header is recommended).

Low input costs. In most cases less than $120 cash costs per acre for the entire year.

Spreads out workload at seeding and harvest.

Roundup Ready means easy weed control.

Thirty to 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre fixed for next year’s crop.

Easy to sell. Unlike contracted crops, soybeans can be sold immediately when the farmer chooses instead of waiting for contract calls. Next to corn, it is the most liquid traded commodity in North America, and prices can be locked in for up to three years in advance.

Soybeans can be left standing without fear of shattering in years where multiple crops like alfalfa seed and flax are ready at the same time.

Unlike peas, if you crack your soybeans at harvest, they are not graded as dockage. They are counted as regular crop, and you receive full payment for them.

We are excited about how we found a soybean variety that is agronomically adapted to southern Alberta, and we will continue to strive to look for better varieties and agronomic practices to enhance producers’ bottom lines.

Patrick Fabian owns and operates a seed farm in Tilley, Alta. You can reach him at www.fabianseedfarms.comor by phone at 403-633-9999.

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