Fill Growing Market for Hay
Perry Miller was a few years into his SARE-funded research on diversifying wheat cropping systems in Montana when he discovered a surprising thing: adding winter peas to break up the typical season-long fallow provided a more profitable forage than a food crop.
Most Montana winter wheat growers plant in September, harvest the following July, then leave their fields fallow for 14 months. That wheat/fallow system attempts to eke as much moisture as possible in Montana’s dry climate for the wheat crop. Yet, the prolonged fallow encourages erosion, degrades the soil, and requires herbicides to manage weeds. “Fallow is a big negative for soil quality,” Miller said.
Miller introduced Austrian winter peas, planted in the fall to grow throughout the winter and be ready for forage harvest in late spring. Adding peas during the fallow period creates a system that wastes less water, guards against erosion, and —most importantly— feeds biomass to the soil. “Soil contains a living, breathing community that needs to eat regularly,” Miller said.
Miller’s experiment examined seeding rates, dates, and optimal wheat stubble height for a successful pea crop. Yet, it was the legume’s biomass that proved more valuable than the fruit. The winter pea and lentil didn't yield any better than currently available spring types, but Miller recognized the potential of peas as a forage thanks to their high protein content and plentiful biomass. Forage can feed a fast-growing market in Montana for quality hay. By harvesting the forage just after flowering, a grower conserves water for the following wheat crop.
“It’s looking like a real winner,” Miller said. Moreover, adding peas “is a much more sustainable practice, and economically positive, too.”
Montana growers support diversification strategies. A state wheat and barley group funded Miller’s continuing research, while the Montana Farm Bureau and Montana Grain Growers Association have formally asked Montana State University to expand organic wheat production research.
For a few years, Mike Greytak of Billings, Mont., has rotated winter peas, canola or lentils with winter wheat, depending on the precipitation that season. He finds the rotation is a triple winner. “Crop rotation always pays,” he said. “It gets the disease pressure off my back, it fixes nitrogen and uses less water.” Moreover, he says he’s producing a “superior” wheat crop by following legumes. “I’m making about as much money and growing better wheat.”
"Posted with permission from the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), the national outreach arm of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, USDA. For more information about SAN or sustainable agriculture, see http://www.sare.org."