Alternative crops provide opportunity for additional income in new markets for farmers
“We have competitive advantages to think about in the Big Horn Basin,” says Caitlin Youngquist, University of Wyoming (UW) Extension educator based in Washakie County. “We have good water. We have a long growing season, which is helpful for a lot of crops, and we have low humidity, which can be an advantage because the crop is alleviated from disease pressure.”
Additionally, the Big Horn Basin is relatively isolated, which can provide advantages for seed crops or any crops that have a risk from disease transfer or cross pollination.
“Those are some of the advantages in this region for alternative crops,” she explains. “Some of the challenges in the same region, however, are that we have mostly alkaline soils.”
Much of the soil in northwest Wyoming has a pH higher than seven, which is higher than neutral. While some crops aptly grow in alkaline soils, others require a more acidic soil.
“We also tend to have a lot of saline soils and water,” she continues. “Beets and barley tolerate those high salt conditions well.”
Additionally, hot summers and cold winters can be challenges for producers in the area.
In one bulletin produced by UW Extension, titled “Alternative Crops for the Big Horn Basin, Wyoming,” Youngquist explains research that developed a model to determine if a particular crop of interest may fit in a specific area or region.
“For this model, they looked at mean temperatures in May, June, July and August, maximum temperatures, minimum temperatures, days exceeding 90 degrees, growing degree days, 90 percent chance of frost-free period and other parameters that can be used to determine if any crop may fit within the parameters and be productive in this area,” she says.
The bulletin highlights 28 different crops that are suitable for high pH soil and in areas where May, June and July temperature is greater than 40 degrees, with a mean temperature of 65 to 75 degrees.
To highlight a handful of crops that producers may be able to produce, Youngquist cites numerous options.
“Winter wheat or spelt are both good options,” Youngquist explains. “Spelt is a grain, as well as the forage. Most spelt grown in the U.S. is winter spelt, although some spring spelt is grown in Canada.”
Both crops can be grazed in the fall or spring, then harvested in the summer for grain, resulting in multiple uses for the crop.
“It is also a great cover crop,” she says, “and there is good research about planting it with peas, then grazing it in the fall and summer. We can get two grazings out of it.”
The grain market for spelt is primarily based in health food, where there is higher demand for organic spelt, according to Youngquist.
Safflower Technologies of Montana buys chickpeas, lentils and maple peas.
“There are chickpea trials going on in Powell and at the research station in Lingle,” Youngquist continues. “Those are good options.”
Additionally, those crops are largely marketed into a health food market, which adds potential for producers who may consider producing organically.
“For example, lentils sell for 22 cents a pound. They are almost 90 cents a pound for organic, so farmers get a significant jump in their price point there,” she says.
Fenugreek is an additional forage legume that can be grown as a forage or medicinal herb.
“It is 14 to 20 percent protein and yields 2.5 to 3.5 tons per acre,” she says, adding fenugreek has been seen to stimulate milk production in dairy herds.
Another nitrogen producer is Sunn hemp, which can result in 100 units of nitrogen in 60 to 90 days.
“This is a legume that is a fiber, forage or cover crop,” she explains. “There is a lot of Sunn hemp seed going into cover crop mixes or multi-species mixes, so there may be some potential for seed production as the demand for cover crop mixes increases.”
A number of variety trials are being conducted at Wyoming’s various Research and Extension Centers, including trials for flax in Powell.
Flax can be grown for seed, oil, food or fiber, meaning many different types of flax are available.
“Flax can be harvested with an alfalfa seed header, meaning we might not need any additional equipment,” she says. “Quinoa is another plant that fits in the health food market, so it is going to be mostly organic, although not exclusively.”
Quinoa can be grown as a forage or seed.
“Quinoa is primarily grown certified organic, but it can make a high-quality forage, comparable to corn silage or alfalfa, depending on the time of harvest,” Youngquist comments. “This is something else to consider as an alternative forage.”
In considering alterative forages, Youngquist notes producers should consider all their options – from type of crop to marketing labels like certified organic.
“When considering alterative crops,” she comments, “look at the cost of production, see if there’s a niche and consider what might grow in the area.”
Youngquist spoke at Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days in Riverton on Feb. 7 and WESTI Ag Days in Worland on Feb. 14.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.