NorthStar News

Are Soybeans a Viable Crop for Alberta?

By Shari Narine

A grower and a research scientist both hold that there is great potential for soybeans in Alberta.

And Patrick Fabian, who operates Fabian Seed Farms near Tilley in southern Alberta, believes acreage will increase north of the Trans-Canada Highway once early maturing soybean varieties are more readily available.

“There’s great interest throughout the north, particularly around the Grande Prairie/Dawson Creek area where they have the extra light and there’s a pocket of heat in there. They’ve already been tinkering with soybean up in that area, so you get something that is a week earlier, and those guys will be all over it,” said Fabian.

Fabian has grown soybeans for the past nine years on his irrigation farm. However, this year he won’t be, instead taking advantage of the opportunity to plant his available acres with pedigreed seed canola. But next season, he is planning to return to soybeans. In 2015, almost one-third of Fabian’s 900 acres were seeded in soybeans.

It’s been a steep learning curve leading the way, Fabian admits. He started with six acres as an experiment and each year planted more.

“We kept on slowly increasing as we got a little bit more used to it and finding out what we could do and what we should not do,” he said.

Through the growing pains, he discovered that soybeans were a viable crop.

“They have a substantially lower input cost than a lot of other crops so less front-end loaded risk,” said Fabian.

Soybeans have rotational benefits with nitrogen-fixing capabilities. Also, with their timing for both planting and harvesting, soybeans fit well in the diversified crop rotation in southern Alberta.

Fabian holds that producing 50 bushels of soybeans per acre – which is what most producers are getting now – makes the crop economically viable.

Manjula Bandara, pulse and special crops research scientist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, believes for producers to replace some of their tried-and-true crops, soybeans need to hit 60 bushels per acre or four tonnes per hectare. He sets that as the target yield because soybeans average about $10 per bushel.

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Higher production output is one of the goals Bandara is striving for, now half way through a four-year trial on the crop, which is funded by a consortium.

“Southern Alberta has so many options because of irrigation facilities available, and a lot of perennial and annual crops are already traditionally grown. If we introduce a new crop like soybeans, it has to be economically competitive,” he said. So trials are setting the threshold high in that deliverability area.

“Very early varieties may be useful up north where the limiting factor is the length of the growing season,” said Bandara. “[In the south] we are in a fairly warm area. Under that situation, we need moderate not early maturity. Maturity has a positive correlation with the yield – the longer the plant stays in the ground, the higher the yield, but you cannot exceed 130 days. If it takes longer, there could be frost damage. We have to have some sort of balance.”

For economic viability comparisons, including productivity, cost-effectiveness, and rotational benefits, Bandara draws on dry beans. Dry beans are a well-established crop with 48,000 to 52,000 acres planted and dry beans have a well-established market. Bandara says growers have had a good experience with dry beans so for them to switch some of their acreage to soybeans, it has to be worth their while.

The four trial sites, located in Brooks, Medicine Hat, Bow Island, and Lethbridge, are testing 18 genetically modified seed varieties. Each plot, about eight to ten square metres, is replicated at each site. Each variety is tested for two years and now, into the third year of the trial, Bandara says companies have chosen to swap out one or two varieties based on performance.

Two full seasons have yielded some valuable information.

Available seed varieties dictate maturity dates and those make a difference whether planting in the south or the north, says Bandara.

In the south, the maturity range for the best crop yield is 116-121 days, says Bandara, anything after that risks the possibility of frost-kill. Anything maturing before that isn’t producing good yields.

“Very early varieties may be useful up north where the limiting factor is the length of the growing season,” said Bandara. “[In the south] we are in a fairly warm area. Under that situation, we need moderate not early maturity. Maturity has a positive correlation with the yield – the longer the plant stays in the ground, the higher the yield, but you cannot exceed 130 days. If it takes longer, there could be frost damage. We have to have some sort of balance.”

Irrigation is also a factor in the south.

“Soybeans like water,” said Bandara. “We’re trying to fine tune that water requirement. When used at the proper time, the proper amount can influence the yield very appropriately.”

Supplementary irrigation increased yield by 1.7 times, but how much water at what crop stage is still not clear. However, two seasons have determined that while early irrigation is not important, irrigation during flowering and after-flowering is critical.

Seed density and row spacing are also still being considered. Although increasing seeding density consistently increased seed yield, optimization of seeding density and row spacing in regard to cost effectiveness and return-on-investment is yet undetermined.

Crop rotation is another aspect of soybeans that the trials are looking at. Wheat after dry beans is a proven, effective rotation. It has yet to be determined whether a field that yielded soybeans the previous year, increases the wheat yield.

A benefit of using soybeans in crop rotation, notes Bandura, is the fact that as a new crop in Alberta, there is little disease to be concerned about.

Fabian says there is another benefit to growing soybeans locally. In 2012-2013, 122,000 metric tonnes of soybean meal was brought into Alberta for the livestock industry. Last year, the southern Alberta Granum Hutterite Colony began operating a soybean crushing plant. It has doubled its crushing capacity intake to 54,000 acres. There is also a soybean crushing plant in Edberg, and Fabian points out that a number of farm operations have their own crushers.

And while the crushing intake of 54,000 acres of soybeans is four to five times the acres of soybeans that are scattered throughout the province, Fabian contends it’s a realistic goal especially when the “triple zero” short season soybean variety allows more northern acres to be planted. Right now, approximately 75 percent of soybeans are grown in the south.

“It only makes sense that if you can produce the beans here and get them crushed here, the productivity and efficiencies that are capitalized on, should translate to a lower soybean meal cost for the end user as well as for keeping our products and building value in the province of Alberta,” said Fabian.