Clay is a fifth generation farmer in Central Nebraska where he grows corn and soybeans with his father and brother. Clay received his degree from Doane University then moved to Washington D.C. to pursue a career in IT. Clay decided to return to the family farm to assist in its growth and transition to sustainable and regenerative farming practices. Reducing tillage, increasing the use of cover crops, and using less toxic herbicides and fertilizers are constant goals on the farm. Clay believes to grow healthy crops, we must first grow healthy soil.
Mar. 21, 2017
With today’s low commodity prices, you may be thinking about planting fewer corn acres and more soybean acres. If so, you might want to consider a different legume - the yellow field pea. We chose to grow yellow field peas on our farm for the past three years to diversify our typical corn-soybean rotation and as a “defensive” crop. While peas are not overly profitable, the agronomic benefits for subsequent crops carry significant value. This is especially true on non-irrigated acres where annual precipitation is 20 inches or less. Water use efficiency for the crop following field peas is much higher. On our non-irrigated acres, we’ve also seen higher corn yields and improved plant health following peas. I’ve heard from other pea producers, anecdotally, that peas can provide benefits for the following two growing seasons. Plus, peas can be planted and harvested much earlier than corn or soybeans. This allows us to spread out our planting and harvest windows, minimizing risk and reducing the stress that the planting and harvest season typically bring. Where we are in central Nebraska, planting peas gives us a much larger fall seeding window, which gives it an advantage over wheat, which can be difficult to get established after soybean harvest in the fall. If you practice summer fallow or are open to exploring a multi-species cover crop, field peas are a crop that you should consider. How do we plant Field Peas? We use a John Deere 1990 air seeder with 7.5” spacing to drill peas at a 300-350k population. A thick stand is important for yield and season-long weed control, so I haven’t seeded any wider than 10” spacing. Field peas can tolerate much colder conditions than corn or soybeans, so on our farm, we target the end of March to the first week in April for our planting window. This allows for bloom/pollination to wrap up before the bulk of the summer heat arrives, and then we harvest in late July to early August. Our fertilizer program is pretty basic. Peas are a legume, so a typical soybean fertilizing program works great. At a minimum, we apply 100-150 pounds of MAP per acre. Being a legume, peas do use a lot of calcium. We use gypsum to get calcium and sulfur into our fertilizer mix. The remainder of our fertilizer mix is dependent on the soil’s needs based on sampling we do every 3-4 years. Pea inoculant, another important factor, is different than soybean inoculant. Particularly when we first started planting peas, we were sure to double inoculate. The peat-based inoculant is cheap, so the more the merrier as long as it doesn’t hurt seed flow during planting. Our seed dealer is able to provide us with this inoculant. We’ve had good success controlling weeds with a pre-emerge pass of Spartan Charge. This herbicide costs around $20/ac plus application costs. We did attempt a post-emerge application of a Raptor and Basagran mix once when kochia was getting a little thick with limited success considering cost. A high seeding rate and a thick stand is your best bet for season-long weed control. Most dry, edible bean herbicide programs will work for peas (i.e. Dual and Outlook). Of course, consult your herbicide dealer and/or agronomist for the best options for your region. Harvest is very similar to soybean harvest with a few exceptions. To ensure a consistent harvest without a lot of green peas or green weeds to contend with, we sometimes use a desiccant, such as Gramoxone, to terminate the field. We typically use a flex head for soybean harvest, and it also works great for field pea harvest. If you invested in a flex draper head, you might want to borrow a neighbor’s standard flex head. Peas tie themselves together using their tendrils and won’t flow into the combine using a flex draper. They can actually roll right over the head and you’ll have a mess in a hurry. We harvest peas at a slightly higher moisture than soybeans to reduce shattering and splits which could result in dockage at the elevator. If we’re going to handle the grain more than once or twice, we use a conveyor instead of metal augers, which will damage the grain even more. This is also true when handling seed at planting. Do we make any money on Field Peas? For a quick profit analysis, our annual costs (above) can run around $200/ac, and if we grow 50 bu/ac and sell them at $6/bu, which nets us about $100/ac. Of course, this doesn’t account for the agronomic benefits for the next crop or two, which are more difficult to quantify without long term studies. As yellow field peas are non-proprietary, we’ve recently begun holding back and cleaning enough seed for the next year. There is a little risk and more logistical issues, but we estimate we’re saving about $20-$25/ac. Is there a market? This is typically the first question that I am asked when discussing field pea production. In central Nebraska, nearly every acre is corn, soybeans, wheat, or alfalfa. There is a more developed market for peas in the Nebraskan panhandle where small grains and pulse crops are more prevalent. Recently, Gavilon built a pea processing facility in Hastings, Nebraska, so hopefully this will create a more stable market for field peas. Peas are a great protein source. If I had my own small cattle or hog operation, I think feeding peas would be a good option since they are a balanced protein. When sold to an elevator, peas likely go to a dog or cat food manufacturer or are ground and used in vegetarian protein powders. If they are higher quality peas and considered food-grade, then you might even find them in a can of split pea soup at your local grocery store! If you’d like to learn more about why you should consider field peas in your operation please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org . The views expressed in this article are the author's alone and not those of Farmer's Business Network, Inc., its affiliates or members.