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Benefits of a Wyoming Department of Ag grant

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

By Ron Rabou

Farming in a dry climate and relatively high elevation on the plains of Wyoming is full of challenges. As a southeastern Wyoming grain farmer, I’m always looking for innovative ways to enhance production, profitability and soil health.  

For years, our farm has experimented with different crops outside of what would be considered normal for our area. Beyond winter wheat, hay and grain millet and corn, we have grown mustard, buckwheat, safflower, grain sorghum, lentils, spring wheat, hemp for grain, flax, yellow field peas and several varieties of chickpeas.  

As an organic farmer, it has never made sense to me to leave so many acres fallow (unplanted) during the growing season. This historically successful practice is used in more arid climates to conserve moisture and regenerate the soil.

In a typical wheat/fallow rotation, these fallow acres are mechanically cultivated for weeds throughout the summer and are planted to winter wheat in the fall, then harvested the following year.  

In a “no-till” system, a conventional farmer would likely plant these fallow acres to a crop and then, after fall or late summer harvest, would plant them back to wheat. This farmer has two advantages: synthetic fertilizer and herbicide application and better moisture conservation because of no tillage. 

A few years ago, I felt it would be useful to determine if age-old practices could be improved upon. After all, our plants have improved with genetics, and we know and have a lot more access to a wide selection of tillage tools than at any point in history. 

Pulse crops, widely known for their nitrogen fixing properties, are typically an excellent choice for crop rotation. They help mitigate pest and disease problems and are normally popular for helping to build nitrogen reserves in the soil.  

Specialty crop grant

After researching these benefits, we applied for a specialty crop grant through the Wyoming Department of Agriculture with a project titled “Rotational Field Pea Soil and Crop Enhancement Program.” We were fortunate to receive the grant and spent the next two years working on the project.  

It is my desire to share with other producers what we learned through the process.

Program plan

When we developed the program, we based discovery on six objectives: crop diversification possibilities in organic agriculture and their impact on subsequent crops; the value of pulse crop rotations for pest, disease and weed control; the value of pulse crop and legumes for soil enhancement; profitable crop diversification; the importance of rotational crops and their relation to National Organic Program regulations; and tillage practices for pulse crops conserving moisture and helping to guard against soil erosion.        

Three varieties of yellow field peas were planted, soil samples targeting organic matter, nitrogen and phosphorous were taken throughout the process and vertical tillage tools were used to help conserve moisture and create a firm seed bed. 

Planted fields were wheat the previous year. Peas were properly inoculated and planted in early April with a soil temperature of 41 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Emergence of pea crop was exceptional, and all stands were thick and lush with intermediate height. They were then swathed in mid to late July, then “picked up” with a combine for harvest.  Yields were recorded, then some acres were planted back to flax and proso millet the following spring, while others were laid to rest until the following fall where they were planted into wheat. 

Program results

When the subsequent crops were harvested, yields were recorded and more soil samples were taken. The following observations were made: Pea yields varied by 3.54 bushels when comparing the variety with the highest yield to the variety with the lowest yield, and production only provided a net profit of $52.46 per acre, with $41.57 of gross profit going to transportation. 

Weed control after harvest became a very large problem, mostly due to Russian thistle. Other than weed cover, the fields were lacking organic matter to help build the soil profile.

Timing of harvest coincided directly with wheat harvest, and soil tests showed organic matter, nitrogen and phosphorous on the tested fields decreased over the time period of the project. Excessive weed growth may have been the main contributing factor. 

Lastly, benefits to the flax crop the following year was a bump of 1.2 bushels per acre, while the number was 3.5 bushels per acre for proso millet.  

Overall, we determined there were not enough benefits or profitability to justify adding yellow field peas to the rotation. One of the big downfalls is yellow peas are harvested early, allowing weed pressure plenty of time to take over. 

Environmental impacts

It is very noteworthy to mention there were many environmental factors likely causing the very limited success of this project. 

First, unusually hot temperatures in the early summer while the peas were flowering likely had a devastating impact on pod setting, in turn negatively affecting yields. 

Second, unusually dry conditions affected all the crops, but seemed to have the largest impact on the peas. Conditions in our state are usually sporadic and undependable, but the hot, dry conditions are something we must all learn to work with. 

Yellow field peas respond very well in cool, wet conditions, especially through flowering. I have no doubt this same program would produce different results on a different year. However, I believe consistency will always be a major problem.  

Lastly, on a positive note, pest and disease management is very effective when using a varied crop rotation. Proper and consistent rotations naturally suppress weed varieties, clean up rye problems and will enhance soil health over time. 

Rather than using a standard wheat/fallow rotation, two additional crops can be used in the organic rotational system  By adding two additional crops, 25 percent of fallow acres can be eliminated and those acres can be used for crop production, thus increasing profitability and ground cover. 

 While I would not recommend yellow field peas as a rotational crop in Wyoming, there are others, such as hay millet, proso millet, flax and chickpeas which are highly drought and temperature tolerant. Uncovering markets for these crops can also be highly profitable.

In conclusion, we all must continue to search out ways to diversify agriculture production. While Wyoming’s climate can be a limiting factor, it doesn’t excuse us from experimenting with new and innovative ways to enhance our individual operations. 

With the incorporation of new tillage systems, markets and improved plant biology, the opportunities for the future of Wyoming agriculture are very bright.

As an organic farm, our methodology for weed control is mechanical cultivation and the practice doesn’t bode well for a double cropping system because it exposes the soil to more moisture loss.

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