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Assessing soybeans in southern Alberta

With all due respect to author Charles Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That classic quote sums up the experience of growing soybeans in 2010 for Patrick Fabian of Fabian Seed Farms, and a host of other growers in southern Alberta. “Two words sum up our experience in 2010: disappointedly pleased,” says Fabian, who has experimented with soybeans for the past six years at Tilley, Alberta, approximately 90 kilometres northwest of
Medicine Hat.

Fabian explains that every one of his customers who grew soybeans in 2010 was disappointed by the yields, but he is pleased they all understand climatic conditions were very challenging and most have decided to grow soybeans again in 2011. He says the CHU ratings at his farm were 400 lower than his seven-year average, or about 20
percent less. 

Fabian says 5600 acres were grown in southern Alberta in 2010, and despite the season’s challenges, expects 10,000 acres to be planted in 2011. Yields ranged from 17 to 40 bushels per acre with an average of about 25 bushels per acre. On top of the cold weather, three hard frosts hit Fabian’s crop between Sept 6 and Sept 17. The first frost stopped plant growth and the other two frosts killed the plants. The top one-third of the plants’ pods did not fill, the middle third had BB-sized seeds and the bottom pods were full with mature seeds. Based on pod counts, Fabian estimated his yield should have been in the 46 to 52 bushel per acre range.

Markets are developing
The vast majority of the soybeans grown in the area are Roundup Ready, simply because of the ease of weed control. Fabian explains that the ability to go in with up to 2.0 L/ac of glyphosate (Roundup) at any stage of the crop’s development makes a huge difference in cleaning up the field. While Identity Preserved (IP) soybeans have a niche, premium market, he says until he has more experience growing soybeans, Roundup Ready varieties will remain the preferred type. “We still have a lot to learn about the management practices in growing a good crop, so we are trying to reduce the variables by using Roundup Ready varieties,” explains Fabian.

Accessing markets has not been a problem in southern Alberta. Fabian says several southern Alberta buyers, including Marketplace Commodities and Country Commodities at Lethbridge, and Newco Commodities at Coaldale, Alberta, are purchasing soybeans, as are Quarry Seeds in Stonewall, Manitoba, and Delmar Commodities in Winkler, Manitoba. As of mid-December 2010, the price was $10.56 per bushel at
the bin. 

The end-uses for the soybeans include biodiesel, crush for oil, and roasted for animal feed. “We had been struggling to develop more markets. The buyers are asking for more product before they start buying large volumes, and farmers have been hesitant to increase production without the markets,” explains Fabian. “That is starting to change now with the increasing acres.”

The school of hard knocks
With six years under his belt, Fabian certainly has learned at the school of hard knocks, and says a few key practices are essential. Black soil is the first rule. Conventional tillage practices mean a warmer soil earlier in the spring. He has seen conventional till soil with three to six degrees C higher soil temperature and the soybeans emerging four to five days sooner than no-till. “I don’t have anything against no-till but in our observations, fields that are black in the spring warm up more quickly and that is definitely a benefit to soybeans.”

Shallow planting at one to one-and-a-half inches is also critical. Fabian had some wrecks early on when he seeded soybeans as deep as peas.

Partial irrigation is also necessary. Soybeans need adequate moisture in August when they start to fill pods, and in southern Alberta, moisture is not always certain through August and September. 

Since variety performance trials are not yet conducted in Alberta, Fabian relies on the Manitoba McVet trials for variety comparisons as well as the research demonstration plots from the Valley Soybean Expo in Oakville, Manitoba.
Fabian is still sorting out all the agronomics. Below is an example of one of his conventional tillage fields in 2010 where he is trying to determine suitable agronomics for southern Alberta. 

  • Variety: LS0065RR
  • Seeding Date: May 18, 2010
  • Seeding Depth: One to two inches
  • Moisture: Good to excellent at seeding depth
  • Soil Temp: 14 degrees C
  • Seed was treated with Cruiser Maxx Beans and Apex Pro liquid inoculants prior to seeding
  • Seeding rate: (field split in half)
  • Solid seeded (seven-inch rows) at 65 lbs/ac = 220,000 plants/ac
  • Blocked runs (14-inch rows) at 58 lbs/ac = 190,000 plants/ac
  • Soil Implant granular inoculants were seed placed at a rate of 8 lbs/ac
  • Previous crops- 2009-CDC Baler Forage Oats, 2008: Taurus Flax
  • Seeded with John Deere 9450 hoe drills with GEN openers on seven-inch row spacing, except half the field was seeded with every second run blocked to achieve 14-inch row spacing
  • Fertilizer: Alpine low-salt 6-22-4 placed in-furrow at five gallons per acre

Because 2010 was such a tough year, he is hesitant to draw too many conclusions from the comparisons. “Our goal is to be able to provide sound agronomic advice to help producers raise a profitable crop. I have seen yields in some fields around 45 bushels per acre, and think that is achievable. At that yield, it would a very profitable crop.”

Made-in-Alberta research
Special crops research scientist Dr. Manjula Bandara with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (AARD) at the Crop Diversification Centre South, Brooks, Alberta, has worked on soybeans off and on since 2003. 

A major part of his research has involved looking at variety performance under Alberta growing conditions. He compared 14 soybean varieties in 2009 and 10 soybean varieties in 2010. Varieties were tested under both rainfeed and partial irrigation. Partial irrigation meant the soil moisture content never dropped below 50 percent. When the soil moisture reached 50 percent, it was topped up to saturation with irrigation.

Based on a two-year, one-site variety selection trial, five varieties were evaluated under partial irrigation in 2010. The five varieties evaluated included 24-52R, AC Orford, Apollo RR, NSC Warren RR, and OAC Prudence. In the heat-challenged growing season of 2010, none of the varieties matured in less than 135 days, with some as late as 144 days. However, Bandara says multi-year sites are required to select the most adaptable and profitable varieties for southern Alberta. “We have to select for early maturing varieties; more than 120 days and we start to run the risk of late maturity. We would like to see 110 to 105 days for low risk,” says Bandara.

While variety selection has been a research priority, Bandara has also worked on preliminary seeding rates and density for optimum yield. In his work in 2006, he found that increasing seeding rates from 120,000 seeds per acre through 200,000 and 280,000 to 360,000 seeds per acre resulted in a linear increase in yield without a significant impact on 1000-seed weight or plant height. “We need more work on seeding rate, water use, row spacing and variety selection,” says Bandara. “Those are our future research priorities. We are confident that we can produce 2.5 tonnes per acre (37 bushels per acre) in Alberta. The production potential in Manitoba varies from 3 to 3.5 tonnes per acre (45 to 52 bushels per acre.) However, there is good potential here in Alberta to reach that target using high yielding, early maturing genotypes combined with improved agronomic practices.”

Benefits of soybeans in southern Alberta rotations

Patrick Fabian of Fabian Seed Farms provides these reasons for rotating to soybeans:
  • better utilization and timing of equipment and labour
  • using the existing equipment you already have
  • better staging of crops for harvest; much more flexibility
  • added nitrogen for next year’s crop
  • ability to clean up fields by using glyphosate (Roundup) in-crop at rates up to two litres per acre
  • immediate cash flow as these can be sold at any time; no waiting for contract calls or 1.5 years for a final payment
  • forward pricing up to three years in advance

November 30, 1999  By Bruce Barker


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