A profitable pulse alternative

Western Australian farmers, Carol and Trevor Fowler, are demonstrating the profitability of faba beans where few have grown before. See p8.

In southern NSW, TOPCROP growers have introduced faba beans to their district and developed the best management practices for them.

NSW growers near Temora have successfully introduced faba beans to the district by developing their own best management practices to suit local conditions. They were rewarded with a crop that brought in twice the profit of other commonly grown pulses.

Starting last year, eight farmers have pioneered the crop with assistance from the NSW TOPCROP program which is supported by growers through the GRDC. Support also came from agronomists with (farm advisers) Tidd and Horan.

Following yields ranging up to 3 t/ha in 1995, TOPCROP adviser Leigh Jenkins estimates the number of growers and the number of hectares sown to faba beans in the district in 1996 will more than double.

Methods

The first-time faba bean growers met monthly and travelled from crop to crop on each occasion, learning and discussing problems with fellow growers. Ms Jenkins said the group followed the schedule for the MEY-check crop monitoring package for pulse crops.

Growers regularly measured plant counts with quads and rulers. "The variation in counts between crops raised several issues, including date of sowing, method of inoculation and problems with sowing," said Ms Jenkins.

The growers planted Icarus which was chosen for its resistance to chocolate spot disease. Crops were sown at 100 kg/ha but plant counts varied from 15-55 plants/m2. (See best management practices p9, for sowing guidelines.)

Barry Wiencke of 'Woodland', Narraburra, grew his trial crop into different soils with various challenges — alkaline, acid and water on the ground to see what faba beans could do. "In fact the beans grew in water where lupins and peas would not grow," he said.

Mr Wiencke's advice to new growers: "don't sow into acid soils and don't sow too late".

A late-sown crop (May 25) had plant counts down to 15/m2 which, combined with other problems such as low pH, led to a poor crop all year, said Tidd and Horan agronomist Ian Saunders.

He said growers encountered problems with sowing the slurry-inoculated seed because of Icarus' seed size (problems running through the seeder). Grower-suggested solutions: either slurry-inoculate the day before sowing and allow the inoculum to dry, or consider other methods such as a spray-inoculum system set up on the sowing equipment.

Disease identification

The Temora TOPCROP faba bean group thoroughly acquainted itself with the risks and conditions favouring disease for faba bean, which, for Icarus, is primarily ascochyta, although chocolate spot remains an issue.

Ms Jenkins said NSW Agriculture has now released a useful handbook, Field Guide to Faba Bean Disorders in Australia.

A field evaluation, with NSW Agriculture Senior Plant Pathologist Alex Nikandrow, showed that both diseases were present at trace levels in different crops. The group concurred on the importance of continued crop monitoring and agreed not to spray at that time.

By the end of the season none of the crops had been sprayed with fungicide, but farmers had to spray for Heliothis, following continued crop monitoring and evaluation of damage. A cooler start to the season and continuing favourable weather conditions were the lucky breaks that avoided expensive fungal diseases.

Other crop-damaging concerns through the season were frost and aphids.

Mr Wienke said he found faba beans trouble-free compared to other legumes available to the area. "But you have to keep looking for clean seed — I usually get mine tested," he said.

Nutrition and marketing

Growers also educated themselves on appropriate nutrients matched to soil profile. For instance, said Mr Saunders, a crop on heavy black clay soil was sprayed with zinc sulphate to alleviate symptoms of zinc deficiency (interveinal yellowing, stunting). He said the group wants to do more tests to determine the 'when and where' of zinc application.

With visiting experts from NSW Agriculture, the group also explored marketing issues and evaluated alternate faba bean variety trial plots of Fiord and Ascot.

The dollar bottom line

Input costs for the 1995 faba bean crop were equal to those for other pulses because expensive fungicides were not part of the equation.

Mr Saunders said growers will need to be very careful about rotation — plant as far away from the first crop as possible — and dispose of stubble to avoid fungal disease in the second season.

Growers earned $255/t for their faba bean crop. Combined with the high yield and favourable input costs, this was double the profitability of other pulses and a return about equal to wheat.

Mr Saunders says faba beans can find a market for both human consumption and animal feed. Depending on harvest time, seed size, and quality, much of the grain can be sold overseas for human consumption.

The Temora group sold most of its 1995 crop to a processor in Benalla for the human consumption export market. Mr Saunders said this year the plan is to investigate a grain pooling system with a view to guaranteeing a supply to processors which will lead to a more stable long-term price and market potential.

Final assessment

Mr Saunders made the final assessment of each crop, monitoring pod counts and estimating potential yields. "We were able to be surprisingly accurate, with pod counts of 200-300/ m² reflected in yields of 2-3 t/ha," he said.

Yields across the district ranged from 0.5-3 t/ha. Mr Saunders said the crops at the lower end of the scale suffered problems from the beginning of the season related to late sowing date, low soil pH and consequent poor establishment.

"Growers who concentrated on good establishment and getting the crop off to a healthy start were rewarded with higher yields. The important factors were careful paddock selection and preparation, optimum sowing time, higher plant counts and quick remedial action where warranted," he said.

"I was happy with my first crop," said John Harris of 'Wave Hill', Ariah Park. "We had about 2.4 t/ha, and it's a pretty problem-free crop to harvest."

Region National, North, South, West