Changing crops requires planning, preparation, timing

2011-05-15T13:22:00Z Changing crops requires planning, preparation, timingBy TERRI ADAMS The Prairie Star The Prairie Star
May 15, 2011 1:22 pm  • 

Many producers have a set crop rotation, but they’re usually willing to change things up a little to cash in when other crops are bringing high prices. But that’s easier said than done.

Perry Miller,  professor of cropping systems at Montana State University, said changing crops isn’t as easy as loading the seeder with something different.

It takes homework to make a wise decision about planting a new crop.

“If they are thinking about trying a new crop, don’t go into it on a whim. Get a production guide and read everything you can about that crop,” he advised.

Producers should learn about seeding time, soil requirements, fertilization, pests, diseases and water requirements.

“Right now most producers have some subsoil moisture and have the chance to get a good crop started,” said Miller. “It’s nice to have the moisture in the bank, so to speak, but what matters more is what will come from the sky later on.”

He noted that some crops perform better if irrigated, while other crops do well in dryland conditions. Because of the high prices, some producers may feel tempted to pull out an irrigated hay field for a few years and replace it with peas or lentils.

Dave Wichman, superintendent and research agronomist with the Central Ag Research Center, said that putting peas on irrigated land is not the best idea.

“Peas do better in dryland situations. You will get more bang for an inch of water out of grain than you will out of peas. Peas are not the most economical crop under irrigation. Wheat and barley make much better use of water.”

Another thing that producers need to consider is soil fertility. Wichman said soil tests are always a critical component for any change.

“Do no anticipate that you will have an ample supply of nitrogen in the field because you had alfalfa or other legume crops there previously,” Wichman said, adding that as the legumes die out grass and weeds invade. The grass and weeds then deplete the soil nitrogen.

“Nitrogen can be deficient early in the season following removal of an alfalfa stand because it takes time for the nitrogen to mineralize. Invading grass and weeds will also be using that nitrogen,”  he said.

Producers removing perennial forage stands this spring to establish a crop need to consider tillage as opposed to “spraying it out.”

Wichman explained that to get an effective kill with spring spraying, most perennial species need to have 6 inches of growth. Six inches of growth may not occur until early May in many parts of Montana.

That could push seeding dates into early-mid May which is getting late for cool season pulse and cereal crops. Therefore, tillage may be the better option to make a timely conversion from a perennial stand to an annual crop  this spring, he suggested.

In situations with highly erosive soils, Wichman said producers could consider going with the herbicide removal of the perennial stand and seeding a warm season crop in June.

Plan and take action during 2011 for removing perennial forages stands to be planted to annual crops in the spring of 2012, he said.

Using herbicides to remove perennial forage stands is more effective during the growing season, Wichman said. Tillage is more effective during the dormant season.

When they will introduce the new crop is also important. Wichman said some fields can be tilled and plowed under while others need to be sprayed prior to introducing a new crop. All these steps take time and may push a producer passed the optimum planting window.

The previous crop can also be a factor in switching to a new crop, especially when considering an alfalfa-legumes-alfalfa rotation.

“Alfalfa may have diseases that could attack the peas, and if you are planning to come back to alfalfa in a few years, you should take it out of legumes first, to reduce the risk of diseases attacking your alfalfa. Go to grain in those fields if you can,” Wichman advised.

Because of last year’s prices and the money made by some Montana producers on their peas and lentils, some producers may decide to put in some pulse crops.

“If they are thinking about putting in peas or lentils, they need to get a Montana Chickpea or Pea Montguide,” Miller cautioned.

Miller did say the guides are a little dated but still mostly accurate.

“The ascochyta blight management info on chickpea is not right up to date and, unfortunately, the lentil guide is very out of date,” he commented. “Growers should look elsewhere until we get that one revised.”

For information on lentils (pea and chickpea), Miller recommends the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers Guide.

“It is an excellent manual. Most of the information will apply in Montana, although we are drier here. But the management concerns, the seeding rates, rolling and at what stage — all that information is basically the same.”

Many pulse crops have premiums specifically related to the varieties and producers need to make sure they can meet those premium requirements and deliver the product to a buyer who will take them.

But don’t just look at the premiums. With high premiums come tighter requirements. For that reason, Miller suggests that the first year or two of trying a new crop, producers should select a variety that is easy to grow.

“Chickpeas, for example, are easier to handle and easy to cut. If you grow the desi chickpea, they are smaller and have better disease tolerance. They are easier to seed and more forgiving than the bigger kaubuli chickpeas,” he said.

Miller would not advise any new grower to start out growing kaubuli.

“There are extra management concerns when you are producing a large, food and canning quality variety of chickpeas. They are also very expensive to seed. The kaubuli chickpeas are for producers who already have experience,” he said.

“Unfortunately, every year some producers change crops without doing their homework and that’s a recipe for disaster,” Miller concluded.

To find the Montana crop guides, go to and scroll down to find the desired link. To check out the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers Guide, go to and click on “Growing Pulses.”

Copyright 2014 The Prairie Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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