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Winter pulses showing potential in southern Alberta

The promise of winter pulse production is alluring, with just enough success to keep researchers and farmers interested. While winter pea and lentil have shown potential at Lethbridge, they have not survived in other areas, and winter fababean has not fared well at all.

February 3, 2010  By Bruce Barker

The promise of winter pulse production is alluring, with just enough success to keep researchers and farmers interested. While winter pea and lentil have shown potential at Lethbridge, they have not survived in other areas, and winter fababean has not fared well at all.

 Winter lentil only survived at Lethbridge in 2009.


Research Agronomist Ross McKenzie with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (ARD) and ARD’s Rob Dunn have been working with winter pea since 1998 when the crop was included in their Diagnostic Field School at Lethbridge. McKenzie says they have continued to work with winter pea at Lethbridge with good success.


The Southern Applied Research Association (SARA) at Lethbridge, Alberta, has also been growing winter peas with varying success over the last five years in southern Alberta. More recently, Alberta Agriculture initiated a winter pulse research project that runs from 2008 to 2012 and includes four sites across the province, including Lethbridge, Brooks, Lacombe and Edmonton. The ARD project is funded by the Agriculture and Food Council, Alberta Pulse Growers, and Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund, with many other players that contribute in-kind through providing seed, pesticide products and time to this project. “We are in the very early stages of assessing the potential of winter pulses,” says Mark Olson, a pulse industry development specialist with ARD at Stony Plain, Alberta. “Only at Lethbridge, where there has been some previous success, does it seem like growing winter pulses might be close.”

The first year of the ARD trial was conducted this past year, with the winter pea, lentil and fababean seeded in the fall of 2008 and compared to spring seeded pea, lentil and fababean. The second year’s crop was planted during the fall of 2009. The trial is also comparing three seeding rates and three fall seeding dates of early-, mid- and late-September.

Fall establishment in 2008 was successful, and researchers were hopeful in the spring of 2009 when the crop came out of the winter in April with green colour at the growing point at all locations. Then the wild temperature swings started in northern Alberta “The temperatures went from plus five to minus 13 degrees C overnight. The Edmonton site was lost completely,” says Olson.

Producer interest is high, as Olson explains at an ARD winter pulse research tour.  
Winter pea regional trials illustrate the winter hardiness of different varieties.


None of the winter fababeans, which were brought in from France, survived the spring freeze. The winter lentils were lost at Edmonton, Lacombe and Brooks, and only survived at Lethbridge. The winter peas were lost at Edmonton, partially survived at Lacombe, and did okay at Brooks and very well at Lethbridge. “I was surprised that the Brooks site didn’t do better while the Lethbridge site did well, so it will be interesting to see how the next few years turn out,” says Ross McKenzie with ARD at Lethbridge. 

McKenzie adds that all his trials over the years are direct seeded into standing cereal stubble. He says that direct seeding with some phosphate fertilizer is important for over-winter survival, and that it is critical to reduce the effects of wind at the soil surface and for snow trapping to assist with snow cover in the winter for insulation value. 

To help assess the potential in southern Alberta even more, McKenzie added in a site at High River south of Calgary, in addition to the Brooks and Lethbridge sites for the 2009/2010 crop year. He had hoped to also get a site at Bow Island, but ran into difficulties getting the crops planted there.

Ken Coles with SARA at Lethbridge has also worked with winter pulses during the last few years. His program looked at agronomy, including weed control in winter peas and lentils, a seeding date, depth and fertility trial, breeder variety trials, and farmer strip trials using winter pea as a pea leaf weevil trap crop.

“We weren’t able to harvest the winter peas this year due to extreme lodging and shelling from excessive rainfall at harvest, while the spring peas survived and were harvested with little problem,” explains Coles.  The winter lentils did survive and were harvested but were not any better than the spring lentil plots. In his experience, later seeding dates at Lethbridge have better survival.

Looking for a yield benefit
Dr. Kevin McPhee, a researcher formerly at the United States Department of Agriculture at Pullman, Washington, and now at North Dakota State University, was one of the researchers who initially spurred on the interest in winter pulses. He is conducting a Western Regional Variety Trial to help with commercialization of winter pulses. Some of his initial winter pea and lentil trials have resulted in 40 percent higher yield compared to spring planted crops in the Washington area. 

At Lethbridge, McKenzie did see a yield advantage with the winter pea, but the winter lentils did not have a big advantage in the first year of trials. “Just because we can grow winter pulses doesn’t mean there will be a yield advantage to growing them. And growers have to consider the risk involved, as well.”

From what McKenzie has seen, planting in the first two weeks of September in southern Alberta is key for winter pea and lentil. But that brings the concern of seeding into dry soil, especially in southern Alberta in the fall. While winter wheat can germinate in fairly dry soil, McKenzie says that the larger seeded winter pea and lentil crops may have a harder time. His Lethbridge plots had good soil moisture going into the fall, which may be a partial explanation of why the crops did better there in the first year of trials. 

Currently, there are only two registered winter pea varieties in the US, Specter and Windham. Both are livestock feed types. Olson explains that these varieties have been called feed types because of an issue with the seed coat called “ghosting.” This is where the seed coat or hull separates from the cotyledon and gives a transparent ghost like appearance. Interestingly, samples of winter pea have been shown to local grain buyers in the Lethbridge area and have been given a human grade. “I think the grading has to do with supply and demand,” says Olson. “Dr. McPhee has addressed the ghosting issue in his newer varieties.”

McKenzie says the other issue with the registered varieties is that both Specter and Windham have small seed size, which makes them less desirable for human consumption. He does say, though, that the varieties both have very good winter hardiness.

One winter lentil, Morton, is registered. It is a small red lentil type. In Canada, winter pulses have not entered the registration process, and Olson says that the topic is on the agenda for the winter 2010 meeting of the Prairie Recommending Committee for Pulse and Special Crops.

Further study being done
There is a University of Alberta component to the ARD project that is looking at a constituent analysis of winter crops to assess the fibre, starch and protein content, and other fractional components of winter pulses. As well, the University of Saskatchewan is doing a cooking quality assessment of the whole seed for field pea, comparing winter and spring types. “One of the questions is once the hull is off and the seed is ground into flour, are winter pulses really any different from spring pulses?” asks Olson.

Other agronomy issues to be sorted out include weed, insect and disease control. Winter annual weeds may be a big challenge in winter pulses, and the pea leaf weevil likes to go for the earliest emerging pea crops in the spring, which is why winter pea is being researched as a weevil trap crop. “I’ve said that winter pulses are where winter wheat was 20 years ago. That might not be the case in southern Alberta where they have had more success,” says Olson. “There is a reason we grow spring pulses in Western Canada. We know they do well when they are seeded early. We still need time to develop the varieties and agronomy package to grow winter pulses with low risk.”

In Saskatchewan, pulse crop researcher and pea breeder Tom Warkentin at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre says that they have been watching the Alberta experience with winter pulses, and that winter pulse breeding is low on their priority list at this point because the Saskatchewan winters are much more severe than southern Alberta. “The issue of winter hardiness is significant,” says Warkentin, although he does not rule out that winter pulse research will not be conducted there in the future. “It will take some significant progress by some of our other colleagues to trigger us to re-evaluate that.”

McKenzie says that farmers should be patient and not leap into growing winter pulses right away and wait for the ARD province-wide research results. “Researchers need time to determine whether winter pulses can be successfully grown and determine the appropriate agronomic practices such as seeding date, seeding rate, soil moisture conditions required for germination and best methods of weed control.”


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