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Growing soybeans in southern Alberta

Farmers would like the rotation option, but heat units are marginal and soybeans must compete with high-value irrigation crops

For some Prairie farmers, the question of whether to introduce soybeans into the rotation may seem like a no-brainer. They’re good nitrogen fixers and have proven a hit on rain-fed land in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where soybean acreage has increased dramatically over the past decade.

But if you’re a producer in Alberta, the answer is not quite that simple. The northern and central regions of the province do not receive the crop heat units (CHU) necessary to grow soybeans, generally limiting their growth to the southern regions. Because it’s a moisture-loving crop, Alberta’s soybeans are usually grown under irrigation, adding to the cost of production. They also have to compete with high-value irrigated cash crops such as sugar beets, grain corn and potatoes.

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However, there has been a concerted effort to develop short-season, high-yielding soybean varieties for areas with short growing seasons such as southern Alberta. Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s (AF) Crop Diversification Centre (CDCS) in Brooks has been investigating new varieties for their productivity and adaptability over the past several years.

Ron Gietz, an AF pork specialist at CDCS who has carried out a lot of research on soybeans from the animal feed perspective, believes there is potential for soybeans in southern Alberta. However, they face an uphill battle, and their acceptance hinges on the successful introduction of earlier-maturing varieties.

“Once confidence in growing the crop is established, depending on demand and price, experts anticipate a rapid growth in acres, likely around the year 2020. It is likely that processors will want to see evidence of a strong acreage trend before investing in crushing capacity.”

Heat unit challenge

Alberta soybean acreage is still so low that it falls below Statistics Canada’s radar. “It’s well under 100,000 acres and is more likely in the 50,000 or less acre range,” says Gietz. “It has to compete with some very high-value crops; the cost of land is very high so as a result it struggles to find a place in the rotation. So you get guys who try a few acres, try a quarter section in some cases, and they might not try for a while.”

There is also the question of available heat units. A study conducted by Gietz in 2014 found the earliest available varieties rated at 2300 CHU with most closer to 2400 CHU. By comparison, grain corn already has commercial varieties available as low as 2050 CHU. “It is expected that the coming years will see the introduction of new, lower heat unit varieties, which will expand the potential range of this crop in Alberta,” he says.

On the market side, soybeans are an easy sell. “Soybean meal is kind of the gold standard in terms of protein sources for hogs and other monogastric animals,” says Gietz. “In Alberta we import about $50 million worth of soymeal from the U.S. Midwest every year. It’s gone down a little bit — canola meal is a good substitution — but there is definitely a market for whatever we can produce.”

The province is home to two small soybean processors which generally provide more than enough capacity for local producers’ needs. In the event that soybean production increases, existing producers would likely feel some short-term growing pains as processing capacity rallies to meet the challenge, says Gietz.

Input costs for soybeans are significantly lower than most competitive crops. A study Gietz conducted in 2015 put the variable input costs — including seed, inoculant, irrigation, machinery and other factors — at just over $195 per acre. The revenue on a crop yielding 40 bu./ac., for example, was just over $461 with a gross margin of $266. His analysis identified the break-even point for soybeans to be 35 bu./ac. at a price of $12.56 per bushel.

Breaking the 60 bu./ac. barrier

In order for soybeans to be economically feasible among so many other irrigated high-value options, the performance of new varieties will have to exceed that break-even point considerably. Manjula Bandara, pulse and special crops research scientist at CDCS in Brooks, has been evaluating new short-season varieties since 2003.

Bandara and his team established that soybeans need to produce 60 bu./ac. in order to be cost-effective and competitive with well-established irrigated crops. In 2013, according to an independent survey by soybean producer Patrick Fabian, soybean crops in Alberta produced a mean average of 40 bu./ac.

“We have identified several soybean varieties with a potential of producing more than 50 bu./ac. marketable seed yields,” says Bandara. “However, in order to be a competitive crop, soybean needs to compete with other cash crops grown under supplementary irrigation for market access, cost of production, unit price and productivity.”

The study was conducted using 16 genetically modified glyphosate-resistant and three conventional soybean varieties for a number of key traits at four test sites in southern Alberta: Brooks, Bow Island, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge. Five genomics companies — Monsanto, SeCan, La Coop fédérée, Norstar Genetics and Thunder Seeds — participated on the condition that the names of specific varieties not be made public.

Key takeaways

Yield varied significantly among the genotypes and test sites over the four years of the study

Many of the traits varied significantly even in the same growing environment, says Bandara. For example, narrow rows of soybeans yielded more than wide rows at the Lethbridge site in 2014. However, wide rows yielded more than narrow rows at the same site in 2015. Among the test sites, the Brooks site seemed to come away the clear winner for yield, with the highest seed yield (64 bu./ac). “It is important to note that low seed yield at the Medicine Hat site was due to frost damage and not to unsuitability of the region,” says Bandara.

Early flowering and crop maturity are key

Further analysis revealed early flowering, crop maturity between 116 to 120 days, and high pod clearance as vital traits for selecting highly productive genotypes. On average, the number of days to 50 per cent flowering (NDF) among genotypes tested varied from 53 days for the highest-performing varieties to 61 days for the lowest-performing. All five of the participating companies were represented among the highest-performing categories.

Among the different test sites, the NDF varied from an average 51 days for the Brooks site to 59 days for Medicine Hat. The average plant height at 50 per cent flowering (PHF) varied from 29 centimetres for the lowest-performing variety to 42 centimetres for the highest. On average, PHF among test sites varied from 22 centimetres for the Medicine Hat site to 55 centimetres for the Lethbridge site.

Density matters

The researchers achieved a maximum seed yield of 44 bu./ac. at the highest seeding density tested. Seed density also had a major effect on nitrogen fixation. Across all environments, genotypes and row spacings, nitrogen fixation by soybean was greatest — 111 kilograms per hectare (kg/ha) at the highest tested plant density of 80 seeds per square metre, followed by 75 kg/ha at 50 seeds per square metre and 53 kg /ha at 30 seeds per square metre.

“Soybean production in southern Alberta would benefit from high seeding densities of 50 seeds per square metre, but this may also increase production costs. Thus, cost effectiveness needs to be assessed,” says Bandara.

Irrigation brings results

The soybean irrigation study component, conducted at CDCS Brooks by AF soil and water specialist Ted Harms revealed that irrigation is necessary for optimum soybean yields in southern Alberta. From four years of study, the highest yields were under supplemental irrigation water for the full season, from after seeding to just before harvest.

“Even in years when rainfall was substantial — such as 2016 — the highest yields were obtained when irrigation was maintained for the entire season,” says Harris.

“Contrasting some misconceptions that soybeans do not require irrigation at early stages or pre-flowering, delayed commencement of irrigation applications was reflected in a corresponding reduction in yields.”

Dryland beans are working for this producer

John Kowalchuk says consistent yields above 30 bushels would encourage more farmers to grow them in central Alberta.
photo: Supplied by John Kowalchuk

Alberta soybean research has so far been mainly confined to the irrigation area in the south, but a dryland producer in the central area of the province is having some success.

John Kowalchuk farms near the hamlet of Rumsey, approximately 80 kilometres southeast of Red Deer. Kowalchuk has been a grain farmer for the past 30 years, taking over the farm from his father 20 years ago. About six years ago he decided to add soybeans to his rotation of wheat, malt barley, yellow peas and canola. He is happy with his overall results and is cautiously optimistic about the future of soybeans in Alberta.

“I looked at a few different crops but out of all of them soybeans seemed to have the most upside. It has solid demand, good weed control and ease of harvesting along with steady advancements in varieties,” he says.

“I said right from the start I was going to give them five years on my farm and after three I think everything is going in the right direction and I’m happy with my results. The economics aren’t quite there yet so I don’t expect to make money at 20 bu./ac. but when yields can average in the 30s we could see it become a part of more guys’ rotations around here.”

Kowalchuk’s yields over his past three years of growing soybeans — generally a thirsty crop — have varied along with the volatile growing conditions, which have ranged from extreme heat with little moisture to overabundant rain with few sunny days.

“2015 was dry with late rains and I averaged 19 bu./ac. 2016 was the wet year with 16 inches of rain during the growing season and the average was 30 bu./ac. Then this past year with six inches of rainfall and extreme heat my average was 22 bu./ac.”

Aside from rainfall, one of the biggest limiting factors of growing soybeans in Kowalchuk’s area is the limited crop heat units (CHU) available. This generally puts harvesting well into the fall and at risk of killing frost.

“The earliest varieties are around 2250 to 2275 CHU. We can make these numbers but it takes us into October. Also these low-heat-unit varieties don’t always perform yield-wise like longer season beans so we give up a bit on yield.”

However, shorter season soybean varieties are in the pipeline. “Companies are steadily coming out with earlier varieties with better characteristics. They see the opportunity for expansion into Alberta and other short-season zones across Western Canada.”

For those interested in growing soybeans, Kowalchuk recommends first, starting small (maybe 15 acres) and second, talking to soybean producers. “I discussed soybeans with many long-time growers and also attended some agronomy seminars to learn as much as I could. There are lots of resources out there to help you, and most producers are more than happy to help out with info.”

An avid Tweeter, Kowalchuk has documented the week-by-week development of his soybeans under the #RumseySoybeans hashtag as well as on his blog ‘Kowalchuk Farms’.

This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of the Soybean Guide.

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