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An Eye for New Crops

Experimenting with pulse crops leads to a diverse no-till system.

Keeping an eye out for new crops has helped Myron Blumhagen shape a management system that makes a good fit for his lifestyle and soil-conservation goals for his family’s farm near Drake, North Dakota.

While his wife, Mary, and their grown sons, Eric and Ryan, pursue work, businesses, and studies away from the farm, Blumhagen primarily works alone in the management of their 2,000-acre operation.

Fifteen years ago, he grew mainly wheat in a simplified tillage-based rotation. Between seeding and frequent tillage operations, the hours added up.

“I started looking for a different way of seeding that would be more efficient for a one-person operation,” Blumhagen says.

He evolved slowly into minimum-till nine years ago, and three years ago he began no-tilling. “I found out that minimum-till and no-till eliminated a lot of work,” he says.

He also observed early on that the key to making the reduced-till and no-till systems work effectively was crop diversity. So began his careful and staged adoption of a diverse cropping rotation now comprising spring wheat, yellow field peas, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, flax, and canola.

While flax and wheat were, of course, old standbys for the farm, the pulse crops, soybeans, and canola were new to Blumhagen 15 years ago. He began experimenting first with the pulse crops of field peas, lentils, and chickpeas.

“I started with the field peas, planting just 50 acres,” he says. “It worked so well and I was so pleased with the results that I doubled the acreage every year until I maxed out. In my rotation, I only seed pulse crops once every four years.”

Blumhagen’s four-year crop sequence is wheat, pulse, wheat, and broadleaf (flax, soybeans, or canola).

When deciding which pulse crop to plant, Blumhagen considers market price and weather conditions. “In a wet year, I bypass lentils and chickpeas,” he says.

Most often, he chooses field peas. “I’ve had excellent success with field peas,” he says. “The peas are a good crop agronomically because they benefit soil health. The soil has become more mellow, and there are a lot more earthworms.”

Field peas have economic benefits, as well. A strong price and good yields typically result in profitability for the crop. By contrast, on Blumhagen’s farm, the chickpeas and lentils tend to yield less predictably than field peas and often have a lower price.

According to Blumhagen, the field peas tend to outperform chickpeas and lentils in synergistic benefits to the subsequent wheat crop. “In wheat following field peas, I get a boost in wheat yield of 5% to 10%,” he says.

The peas also result in a 20% to 25% decrease in his application of nitrogen to the subsequent wheat crop. “Because the peas fix nitrogen in the soil, they create a huge savings in fertilizer cost,” he says.

The pulse crops offer yet another benefit, because their inclusion in a rotation results in diversity of chemicals for weed control.

“Various chemicals kill weeds differently through differing modes of action,” says Blumhagen. “By using differing chemicals with differing modes of action across the rotation, I hope to avoid getting weeds that are resistant to herbicides.”

Another boon Blumhagen has found in field peas is a harvesting window that spreads out his labor and also makes an ideal fit for the rainfall patterns in his region.

“Peas can be planted early in the spring, and they’re done blooming by July 4,” he says. “After they’re done blooming, they just need to fill a little more, and I start combining the third week in July and finish harvesting them by August 1. That’s when hot and dry weather often comes, and the peas are already in the bin.”

Because of the timing of the dry conditions, Blumhagen includes soybeans cautiously in his rotation. “Soybeans need rain in July and August,” he says.

While pulse crops have brought benefits, they’ve also brought marketing challenges. Because Blumhagen’s local elevators don’t handle the pulse crops, they require hauling long distances to outlets.

“Because of the hauling that’s needed, I bought a semi, and I also put up more bins,” he says. “The extra storage space lets me haul the peas in winter when I have more time.”

An overarching benefit of crop diversity is economic resilience for the farm. “It makes good economic sense to me to not put all my eggs in one basket,” says Blumhagen. “The beauty of growing several different crops is that hopefully not all will have price drops at the same time.”

Soil conservation is an important spin-off of Blumhagen’s system. Because the crop diversity results in an effective no-till system, the sum effect is the sheltering of soil from wind and water erosion.

As participants of a Conservation Cropping System, the Blumhagens have implemented additional resource-conserving crop practices. For this work, their soil conservation district presented them with an achievement award in 2013.

While the adoption of new crops has increased management needs and presented ongoing learning curves, the benefits have outweighed the challenges.

“Soil conservation has been the biggest benefit of crop diversity and reduced tillage,” says Blumhagen. “The no-till system has helped me build a cropping operation that one person can handle alone.”

The 2015 growing season was an exception when Blumhagen received help with fieldwork from friends and Farm Rescue volunteers after badly injuring his back. “Sometimes life throws you circumstances, causing you to do things differently from your ideals,” he says.

Aid New Crop Switch

Changes in equipment helped North Dakota farmer Myron Blumhagen work new crops into his rotation.

To fine-tune the planting of pulse crops, he purchased a land roller. The roller presses rocks into the surface of the soil, permitting the combine header to work closer to the ground with reduced danger of picking up stones.

He also fitted his combine with a flex header with drapers. “This type of header is very gentle on the crop as it feeds into the combine; there’s very little shattering,” he says. “Peas, lentils, and chickpeas are horrible for shattering if you take them dry.”

To further reduce shattering, Blumhagen harvests the pulse crops at 18% moisture and stores them in bins with natural airflow. He depends on warm daytime temperatures to bin-dry the crops to 13.5% moisture.

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