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Help where help is needed

Harvey Brink looks to service specialists for expert advice on feeding fababeans and other chores

When Harvey Brink needs help he goes shopping instead of advertising. Rather than having a full-time employee or seasonal helpers, he counts on the services of his cattle buyer, beef nutritionist, grain marketer and crop agrologist. A financial adviser may be next as he and his wife, Coby, start thinking about their succession plan.

Handling the everyday work isn’t normally a crunch since their son, Kyle, has been farming full time with them. He is newly wed to Allie. Their daughter, Ashley, and husband Bowen, who live in the neighbouring yardsite, help out at busy times.

Having expert advice at their fingertips frees up time to concentrate on their strengths in the production side of the business. Along with the 800-head backgrounding and finishing feedlot, they put in 2,500 acres of crops and custom seed another 500 acres near Bentley, in central Alberta.

“We’re comfortable with that. I think it’s the right size for us now,” Brink says. That’s not set in stone, though, because change has been a constant through the farm’s evolution from mainly a dairy farm in his dad’s time. Other signs include the concrete walls of an older silage pit that once served as a hog barn when they ran a 140-sow farrow-to-finish operation, and in the meadow beyond, the last of their remaining beef cows.

Beef cows were always part of the mix from the time he and his dad started out with a purebred Horned Hereford herd, until a couple of years ago when they started phasing out the cows in favour of the feedlot.

It took five years of planning from 1998 to 2003 to exit the hog business while learning about feeding calves to ramp up the feedlot side. There’s a weekly income with hogs, but that requires dealing with every stage of production every day, he explains. Income from the feedlot is sporadic, but the bulk of the work occurs during slower times for the rest of the farm operations.

To spread out the income from the feedlot, they buy mostly 650-pound calves and some five-weights over a two-month period. They started out selling shortkeeps at 1,000 pounds and have been working their way up to finishing more over time. They finish approximately half of them now.

Learning is never ending with help from their nutritionist, order buyer, and now, the packing plant buyer.

“We buy Continental-British-cross calves because we need 2.5 pounds per day gain and we use implants to maximize their potential and get the efficiency we need out of them. Now we are learning how to get the best yield and grade,” Brink says.

Adding to overall efficiency is the new concrete bunk feeder with aprons built last year alongside the pens that have gone up since starting the feedlot.

The original pens built in the 1980s for the cow-calf operation are in good shape and still used when needed.

The handling facility has been updated over the past eight years with all-steel holding pens. A new large open-faced pole shed with opaque panels for natural lighting covers the working chute, squeeze and unloading/loading ramps.

A few strategic adjustments have helped improve cattle flow, such as canvas added to one side of the alley to block distractions from the working chute and a solid metal panel for the driver to stand behind where the cattle make the last curve before the loading ramp. The driver closes off the draft while Brink brings in another 20 head and the two of them will have a load moved from the pen into the liner within 45 minutes.

Fababean in the feedlot ration

“I wanted something different in the rotation because I was tired of peas laying on the ground and all of the disease problems,” he says. “Fababeans handle wet conditions better than peas, but they don’t like hot, dry conditions.”

Prevailing dry conditions from early spring through summer limited plant height to knee-high compared to five feet in years with normal precipitation, although the plants seemed to be podding well, he reported in late August.

Fortunately, the fababean crops missed the July hailstorm that wiped out 320 acres of their barley intended for silage. They were able to purchase a neighbour’s standing barley crop for silage and some late moisture spurred regrowth of the hail-damaged barley fields that they hoped to take as greenfeed.

Fababeans have to be sown as early as you can get on the land in spring and, because of their indeterminate growth habit, have to be desiccated before the first frost.

They are frost tolerant in spring, but not in the fall, Brink adds. That lesson was learned first hand in 2014 when they desiccated 340 acres on a Friday and got hit by frost and a snowstorm that Sunday. The plants stood up well and a week later they were able to take off most of the crop in good condition.

Why fababeans? "I wanted something different in the rotation because I was tired of peas laying on the ground." – Harvey Brink, rancher, Bentley, Alta.

Why fababeans? “I wanted something different in the rotation because I was tired of peas laying on the ground.” – Harvey Brink, rancher, Bentley, Alta.
photo: Supplied

The desiccant (Reglone) didn’t work as quickly on 40 acres of lush crop on rich soil. That part of the field stayed green longer and the frost got the best of it. It was the last crop they took off and by that time the beans had blackened beyond anything that could be sold without a deep discount even in the feed market.

So the blackened beans went into their own feedlot rations. They were still 30 per cent protein and after rolling had a nice texture and a sweet taste palatable to cattle.

His nutritionist Brian Vercaigne, BJV Feed Management at Lacombe, formulated a total mixed ration with fababeans included at 10 per cent for backgrounding and six per cent for finishing, along with rolled barley, barley silage and a mineral-vitamin premix.

Vercaigne focuses on “opportunity feeds” to reduce costs for his clients and says the benefit of fababeans is that they are high in both protein and energy.

“One reason for adding fababeans is because they are 30 per cent protein, but also because the energy is as good as in barley. If you put fababeans in you get an economical price for protein, and take barley out you get double the effect,” he explains.

Last year, the beans maybe could have been sold for $6.50 per bushel, but they priced into the ration at $6/bu. because there were no marketing and transportation costs. Weighing 60 lbs./bu. or 36.744 bu./tonne, that works out to $220.46 per tonne. Barley was worth around $4.25/bu. or $195/tonne. The additional $25.46/tonne for fababeans, provided a very economical source of protein, especially compared to soybean meal priced at $550/tonne at the time.

Fababean plants do make great silage because of their biomass and nutritional quality. In fact the crop’s potential as silage was a focus of early research. Today’s economics would likely favour harvesting the beans unless the crop has been damaged beyond any use except taking it for silage.

Vercaigne recalls his dad feeding fababeans to hogs on the farm near Brandon, Man., back in the ’70s when fababean and field pea were new crops. Beans fell out of favour because hogs didn’t do as well on them due to the tannin content. Today there are zero-tannin fababean varieties that have been bred for use as livestock feed by the Crop Development Centre in Saskatoon (Snowdrop) and by Limagrain in the Netherlands (Snowbird, Imposa). The dark-coloured varieties with tannin remain the premium food-grade fababeans in the export market.

Brink says fababeans are getting easier to market even within the five years they have been growing them. The food market is tough to hit especially since the standard was recently lowered from 15 per cent to five per cent damage on the seed, however, the market for zero-tannin feed fababeans is expanding. They are a less expensive protein alternative than soymeal in hog, poultry and dairy rations and now feedlots are starting to buy them.

Interest in growing fababeans has surged in Alberta and Saskatchewan in recent years. Alberta Pulse Growers estimates 100,000 acres were seeded in 2015. This compares to an estimated 2,757 acres in 2004. Sask­atch­ewan Crop Insurance Corporation says 61,912 acres of fababean were sown in the province this year, keeping in mind that doesn’t include any fababean acres seeded by producers who are not crop insurance customers.

Fababean Production 101,” prepared by Mark Olson and Robyne Bowness with Alberta Agriculture’s crop research and extension division, covers production and management from seeding rates to putting the crop in the bin, based on information and experience from recent trials. It also includes a comparison of the economics relative to growing canola.

Manitoba Agriculture’s fact sheet on fababeans is available on its website.

Romancing the bean

Brink’s agrologist, Carol Holt with Parkland Fertilizers’ Wetaskiwin location, says fababean is a good choice for the central Alberta region because fabas love soil moisture and need consistent moisture throughout the growing season.

“The beauty of fabas is the benefit Harvey is seeing for other crops in his rotation, mainly because of the improvement in soil tilth and health,” Holt says. Wheat the first year after fababean typically has higher yield and protein than wheat on the other fields and canola the second year after yielded more than 75 bushels an acre last year.

Fababean plants nodulate more than pea plants and, therefore, are capable of capturing about three times more nitrogen than peas, she adds. What’s left in the residue and soil is there for subsequent crops.

Brink and Holt got together this year to set up some field-scale trials at the farm to help answer questions he and many other new fababean growers have about the effectiveness of inoculants and micronutrient products.

The answers will be in the yield to be measured with a weigh wagon at harvest, which was two to four weeks away at the time of writing.

Holt says a visual difference is already apparent between specific inoculant products for fababean, each applied with the seed on 20-acre plots. The biggest visual difference is in the root mass and because larger roots are able to scavenge deeper and wider for moisture and nutrients, the plants are taller with larger stem diameter overall. Holt believes this will translate into additional yield, too.

Another trial put two foliar-applied micronutrient packages head to head applied on June 10 and again just before flowering on two separate 20-acre plots. In another field, boron alone was applied on 20 acres at flowering.

The final trial tested the effectiveness of a fungicide application to control chocolate spot, although disease pressure was low this year due to dry conditions. There are no fungicides currently registered for use on fababeans, so production from this plot won’t be marketed.

“We want to see if growers are getting a bang for their bucks spent on these products and see if we can push yields by getting the plants to flower more and keep them flowering to make pods. Typically plants will produce eight flowers but only one or two mature to make pods, Holt explains.

Brink hosted a field tour in mid-August and plans to follow up with a seminar this winter to discuss the results. Stay in touch by emailing [email protected] or calling 403-304-6491.

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