Faba bean has plenty of good attributes: it is high yielding under cool, moist conditions, excellent at fixing nitrogen, and high in protein. Researchers have developed faba bean production practices for Western Canada, and breeders are working to create varieties with even better characteristics. The sticking point right now is market development, but that could change. “Under good growing conditions, faba bean can easily yield about 60 bu/ac or more, and we have seen yields of 100 bu/ac on farmers’ fields. Faba bean is a relatively easy crop to grow, and we get extremely high yields in years when we have a lot of moisture,” says Mark Olson, provincial pulse industry development specialist at Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (AARD). AARD has been working to develop faba bean as a crop in Alberta since about 2003, including creating a complete agronomic package and testing faba bean’s attributes for various uses.
Olson notes, “Faba bean is the highest nitrogen fixer of all the annual grain legumes in the world. So the big benefit in a rotation is not needing to fertilize with nitrogen during the year when faba bean is growing; that’s a huge cost-savings to the farmer.”
As well, like other pulses, faba bean in a rotation can help to break disease, weed and insect pest cycles, improve soil quality, and give a yield boost to the next crop.
Faba beans are a popular food in the Mediterranean region for dishes like soups and dips, and they are used as a protein source in livestock rations in many countries. However, traditional varieties have tannins, an anti-nutritional factor for pigs and poultry, so breeders have developed zero tannin varieties.
AARD research has shown that zero tannin faba bean is a good source of protein in hog rations. However, at the moment, that market opportunity is weak. Olson says, “When biofuels took off, there became so much soybean protein and canola protein on the market that it was really difficult for faba bean to compete because protein got so cheap. Along with that, the hog industry went into a bit of a tailspin, although it’s coming back now.”
According to Olson, at present most faba bean growers in Alberta are growing the crop for on-farm feed. “Zero tannin faba bean doesn’t require any special processing, such as heat treating or de-oiling; it’s just a matter of harvesting and putting it into a storage bin. Hog growers can then mill the zero tannin faba bean similar to other grains they are incorporating into their ration. But you have to look at the cost of growing faba bean and other crops in the rotation to see if it might be cheaper to bring in soybean meal and canola meal than to grow your own faba crop.”
He emphasizes, “You definitely do not grow this crop without first getting a contract with a buyer; otherwise you might be stuck with it.” He adds, “People want to buy faba bean but they want to pay next to nothing. You can’t garner acres on a crop where there’s little grower experience by offering next to nothing. For a new crop to get in the rotation, it’s got to be near equivalent of the highest paying crop and maybe even a premium to that because it’s the farmer who’s taking all the risk.”
Despite the current market difficulty, pulse breeder Dr. Albert Vandenberg sees good potential for faba bean in the long term, and that potential is in the food market. Vandenberg, who is leading the faba bean breeding program at the University of Saskatchewan, thinks developing a food market for western Canadian faba beans would require a strategic marketing effort and some patience but it would likely be worth the effort. “The world population is 6.7 billion and growing. Are we going to need more vegetable protein? Probably, whether we want to eat vegetable protein directly or eat meat. At the same time we are trying to reduce nitrogen fertilizer production because it’s made with natural gas. We’re trying to feed a growing population, and to do that, we’re going to need more fertilizer, not less. Are we going to stop putting as much nitrogen on land to cut down on natural gas so we don’t choke on global warming-type issues? Legumes have to find their role in this because nitrogen fixation is part of the equation,” he explains. “Faba bean is a good source of vegetable protein. Most pulses we grow are about 23 percent protein, and faba bean is about 30 percent. If we focused on the human market for faba bean, we’d still be able to have the hog market. The hog market may come and go depending on what happens in the world, but people have to eat. And people seem to be eating too much carbohydrate, so eating vegetable protein is a positive step. Let them eat fabas!”
Breeding better faba beans
Vandenberg’s breeding program has two components: varieties for Middle Eastern food consumers, and varieties for feed. For the food types, the breeders are aiming for high protein and low vicine and convicine, which are compounds in faba bean that cause a disease called favism in people with a certain hereditary disorder. For the feed types, they want low tannin concentrations and high protein. They are also working toward smaller, rounder seeds to reduce seeding costs and make seeding easier; rounder seeds could also make hulling easier for processors.
He says, “We want to remove all barriers to marketing so you can have a streamlined system.”
For both components, the breeders are striving to create varieties that are farmer-friendly and well-adapted to western Canadian conditions. Vandenberg notes, “We want the varieties to be high yielding, early maturing, determinant, short and easily harvestable. Some of the traditional faba bean varieties are very tall, and in some environments they are so tall that they become difficult to manage.”
Vandenberg brought in faba bean lines from all over the world to add to the genetic base for developing new varieties with the desired set of traits. So far, the breeding program is making good progress. He says, “For the small seeded lines, we’ve knocked about 200 milligrams per seed off from where we started. And we seem to have re-established the yield potential of the small-seeded white-flower low tannin types.”
Faba bean complements the existing suite of prairie pulse crops that do well under warmer and drier conditions. In fact, the ultimate goal of pulse breeding at the University of Saskatchewan is to have at least two types of pulse crops available for every farmer, and then a choice of market class within those.
According to Vandenberg, having a pulse crop suited to each set of growing conditions can be like having a balanced investment portfolio. “You could look at it as mitigating environmental risks; it’s a way to hedge your bets, and still try to make some economics out of that. Where the rainfall line in Saskatchewan happens every year can shift around; in 2010 it was south of Moose Jaw and everything above that was cool and wet. That changed many people’s ideas of what they could grow on their farms.”
Vandenberg notes, “In the seven years that I’ve been working with faba beans, we had the highest yields in 2010 because they tolerate wet conditions. We deal with about five or six different pulse crops in our research program, and in terms of yield, faba bean was the star in 2010.”
Based on the results from their same-sized plots in many locations, average yields in 2010 for lentils were about 1000 to 1200 grams per plot, for peas about 1500 and 2000 grams, and for faba beans about 2500 to 3000 grams.
He adds, “If you work it out to protein per acre, with 23 percent for most pulses versus 30 percent for faba bean, you could almost say we’re producing 50 to 70 percent more protein per acre with faba bean in 2010, because you already have 30 percent extra built in and if you add another 20 to 30 percent on yield, then you have about 60 percent.”
Growing faba bean
Olson and other researchers at AARD have developed an agronomic package for faba bean production. He outlines some of the main considerations.
Typically, faba bean is suited to areas like the Parkland region of Alberta. However, Olson notes, “Some growers in southern Alberta have had really good yields under irrigation. Initially, we didn’t recommend growing faba bean in southern Alberta because historically the weather patterns show it can get really hot there in July and we were concerned about flower blast on the faba bean. But in recent years, southern Alberta has had cool summers.”
He adds, “Growers would need to look at their own situation to see if the economics work for growing faba bean under irrigation. For a seed grower it probably works, but I’m not sure how faba bean grown for feed would compare to crops like potatoes, sugar beets, dry beans and sweet corn.”
Olson advises seeding faba bean on fields where pre-harvest glyphosate was applied in the previous fall to kill thistle and other perennial weeds. That becomes especially important later when harvesting faba bean. He explains, “You need to be careful about foreign material from weeds in the beans because things like thistle heads will heat up your bin.”
Faba bean requires about 110 to 130 days to mature, so the crop must be seeded early. “In Alberta if you don’t get them in by about May 7, you’re probably better off to leave the seed in the bin. Putting them in even five to 10 days later makes the difference between having a really good crop and one that is struggling to mature,” says Olson.
He recommends a seeding density of at least four plants per square foot and a seeding depth of 1.5 to 2.5 inches. He prefers direct seeding faba bean into cereal stubble. “One reason we prefer cereal stubble is that some broadleafs have diseases in common. For instance, canola and faba bean can both be susceptible to sclerotinia. If you do want to put a broadleaf on a broadleaf, it’s better to put canola on faba bean versus faba bean on canola. There’s a whole host of products you can spray for sclerotinia in canola but in faba beans there’s none registered.
“The other reason we like to seed into cereal stubble is because the soil nitrogen level is lower. If you seed a pulse crop in a soil with high nitrogen levels, the plant will tend to use the nitrogen from the soil rather than extracting nitrogen from the air via the rhizobia on the roots.”
AARD’s research shows that faba bean’s fertility needs can usually be met by inoculating the seed with faba bean rhizobia and by applying about 15 lbs of phosphorus (P) per acre. Disease has not been a big problem for faba bean in Alberta. The products registered for weed control in faba bean work well.
Current varieties have very good standability for harvesting. He emphasizes, “We absolutely do not recommend swathing faba bean. With only three or four plants per square foot, the swath doesn’t settle on the top of the stalks. It goes right down on to the soil surface, and it’s impossible to pick-up the crop.”
Faba bean has some indeterminancy, so if the crop gets rain in August or early September it could start blooming again. For instance, 2010 was a tough year for many Alberta growers in the Black Soil Zone because the weather stayed wet throughout the growing season, rather than the usual pattern of drier weather after about July 15. As a result, the faba bean plants grew taller and took even longer to mature than usual.
Faba bean should be harvested at about 18 percent moisture and aerated down to 16 percent. Olson always desiccates the crop. “We’ve just settled into a routine that the first week of September whether they are ready or not, we desiccate them and take what’s there.”
Olson and other AARD researchers are continuing their faba bean research. For instance, they are screening some of the early generation materials from Vandenberg’s breeding program at Barrhead, St. Albert, Vegreville, Lacombe and Brooks.
As well, as part of AARD’s winter pulse program, they are currently evaluating winter faba bean varieties in southern Alberta. Winter survival was poor in spring 2009, but better in spring 2010. The plots seeded in fall 2010 include some new lines that Olson recently obtained from German researchers who specialize in winter hardiness in faba bean, so the results in spring 2011 may be even better.