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Pacific Northwest Atlernative Crop Production: Continuing to Address the Risks and the Profitability
Chad W. Shelton, Certified Professional Agronomist
Western Farm Service, Division Agronomist WFS Inland Division, Spokane, WA

Western Farm Service is a retail agricultural chemical and fertilizer company with over 100 full service outlets in Arizona, California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Western Farm Service consists of six retail divisions. The Inland Division has over 30 retail outlets in Washington and Oregon. As the Inland Division Agronomist it is my goal to research all agronomic inputs and the impacts that those choices may have on Pacific Northwest crop production. It is my sincere belief that there are agronomic interactions between many of the management and production decisions that growers make ever year not only regionally but also within a given micro-climate. Therefore there is a great need for a research program that directly addresses these agronomic choices. Over 9 years ago we developed an Agronomy Program that would allow us to conduct over 250 trials annually. Of these 250 trials 2/3 of the trials are dryland production based and 1/3 of the trials focus on irrigated crop production. Over 40% of the ideas that are researched every year are ideas that growers in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) have proposed. Our goal is to integrate sound agronomics with applied grower economics.

The history of this study: In the winter of 1994 several growers in the PNW thought that with the on set of the Freedom to Farm Bill that the price of soft white wheat may become unstable and fall below $3.00/bushel. As the growers began to gather data on different alternative crops for the PNW, many of them realized that there are a lot of data gaps on certain crops or that there just was not any sound applicable data to fit their region. So during the spring of 1995 we began a program that would focus on the challenges and opportunities in PNW Alternative Cropping. In 1995 we had three research sites with 5 alternative crops and focused on the agronomic viability of these crops. In 1996 the program had ten research sites with 10 alternative crops. The focus in 1996 began to explore the variables in alternative crop production. Studies on seeding date, seeding rate, row spacing, fertility placement, fertility management, rotation sequence, herbicide management and insect management by site and by crop began to reveal some very crucial information. During the 1997 program ten sites were evaluated with over 15 alternative crops. One site was added as a long-term annual zero-tillage study. The goal at this site is to mimic the growers farm model and to experiment with new ideas that can be quickly implemented by the grower with reduced risk. Research on the agronomic variables continued. In 1998 we had over 19 research sites with over 20 alternative crops. Six sites were added as long term zero-tillage studies. The study now includes 7 sites that will focus entirely on zero-tillage of alternative crops. The 7 locations range from 4 acres to over 8 acres in plot size. A study with Washington State University on water use intensity by crop over three sites was introduced in the 1998 program. The 1999 and 2000 program focused on alternative crops that have had success both agronomically and economically. This meant that some of the crops and locations changed in the study from 1995 (fig.2 and 3). During the 1999 and 2000 study greater emphasis was placed on comparing successful alternative crops to traditionally grown and alternatively grown cereals. Over the last 6 years a solid base line has been developed for regional alternative crop production and the agronomic inputs that make those crops successful both agronomically and economically.

1998 Alternative Crops (fig.1)

Canola Lupines Dry Beans Millet Field Corn
Mustard Soybeans Soft White Wht Sorghum Feed Barley
Linola Leafless Peas Hard Red Wht Cotton Malt Barley
Sunflowers Lentils Hard White Wht Potatoes Canary Seed
Safflowers Chick Peas Durum Wheat Buckwheat Sugar Beets

2000 Alternative Crops (fig.2)

Canola Lupines Hard White Wht Field Corn
Mustard Millets Soft White Wht Feed Barley
Flax/Linola Leafless Peas Hard Red Wht Malt Barley
Sunflowers Lentils Hard White Wht Canary Seed
Safflowers Chick Peas Durum Wheat Buckwheat

2000 Alternative Crops Sites (fig.3)

Location Tillage System Length of Study
La Grande, Ore. Minimum Tillage 3rd year of seven years
Helix, Ore. Minimum Tillage 3rd year
Pendleton, Ore. Conventional Tillage 4th year
Walla Walla, Wa. Conventional Tillage 1st year
Clyde, Wa. Zero-Tillage Annual Spring 3rd year of seven years
La Crosse, Wa. Zero-Tillage Annual Spring 1st year of seven years
St. John, Wa. Conventional Tillage 5th year
Pomeroy, Wa. Conventional Tillage 6th year
Rosalia, Wa. Conventional Tillage 6th year
Rosalia, Wa. Conventional Tillage 1st year
Reardan, Wa. Zero-Tillage Annual Spring 3rd year of seven years
Reardan, Wa. Conventional Tillage 3rd year
Ritzville, Wa. Zero-Tillage Annual Spring 3rd year of seven years
Harrington, Wa. Zero-Tillage Annual Spring 5th year of seven years
Coulee City, Wa. Conventional Tillage 3rd year
Odessa, Wa. Conventional Tillage 1st year
Davenport, Wa. Zero-Tillage Annual Spring 2nd year
Genesee, Id. Conventional Tillage 1st year

Alternative Crop Challenges
As with the first four years of the study the last 2 years of the alternative crop production study had many challenges as well. Although the study has changed with grower input, the goal of the program has stayed the same: help reduce the grower's risk in crop production. The data has helped many growers make some tough decisions when attempting to successfully produce a new crop. The study has helped many growers limit their risks both economically and agronomically through crop selection and variable inputs.

Seeding dates have had the greatest impact on yield and quality production with many of the late maturing crops such as safflower. Yield reductions of 30% on some crops occurred because of seeding dates that were one week apart within 10 miles of each other. The key to proper seeding dates is to be aggressive. Watch the soil temperatures but don't wait for the ideal temperature because it usually never happens. The study has proven that being a little early in planting even though you may have to re-seed a given crop due to frost is well worth the risk over the long term.

Insect management is very important. Many of the crops do not have problems consistently but never take for granite that the crop the year before was pest free. Pests at extremely high levels such as flea beetles, sunflower moth, aphids, pea weevil, grasshoppers and wire-worms played significant roles in alternative crop production and crop yield reduction. A grower needs to be aware of the crops that he is growing as well as crops that may surround his fields. Scouting for insects is a very important aspect of alternative crop production. Flaring insects from one field or crop to another field or crop can be very devastating if not caught in time.

Weed management is probably one of the most crucial aspects of alternative crops. Weeds such as russian thistle, kochia, canada thistle, marestail and china lettuce are problems that increased for growers during 1999 and 2000. Weed control is a challenge due to limited herbicides for many of the crops, timing of herbicide application, proper herbicide incorporation in soil profile and crops that lack early competitiveness. Zero-tillage plots that went unsprayed in 1997 could have been sprayed two or three times in 1998 depending on the crop. Field selection is probably the most important thing that a grower can do when attempting to raise an alternate crop. Field history of previous weeds needs to be taken in to account when choosing a field to raise an alternative crop.

Fertilizer inputs and seeding rates can mean the difference in most cases between crop success and crop failure. Crop fertility and seeding rates vary greatly by region and tillage management system (Zero-tillage and Conventional). The most common mistake is over fertilization of a given crop. Choosing an attainable yield goal by region is very important. Many crops now have an established yield potential developed through regional plot sites and commercially grown fields. The other very common mistake is under seeding in zero-tillage and over seeding in a conventional program. Proper stand establishment will help limit many of the other risks associated with crop production. Over seeding usually will induce drought stress and lead to a significant yield loss. Some crops are more severely impacted by over seeding; the crops physical properties will determine this effect. The challenges for PNW growers have been many but there have also been many growers that have captured some unique opportunities and profit over the last 6 years. One of the biggest challenges for growers using zero-tillage and planting alternate crops in the PNW has been adapting to the ever-changing environmental conditions from year to year. The second biggest challenge has been mastering the art of patience and developing sound agronomic program for all crops with local data. Being flexible, patient, and many times aggressive are not always vertues that go hand in hand.

Marketing of the alternative crop is probably the last challenge PNW growers face in alternative crop production. The truth of the matter is this should be the first thing a producer evaluates before choosing an alternative crop. Check the market first then evaluate the agronomic viability of the crop. Usually crops that are marketed on quality attributes have potential for market development. In turn crops that are sold based on quality have greater risks associated, due to specifics of the delivery contract. Playing the open market with alternative crops can be very risky. If you can grow a quality crop then developing a long-term contact with a forward contract is possible.

Alternative Crop Opportunities
Alternative crop production opportunities from 1995 through 2000 depended greatly on the region in which the crops were produced. Since this study has been performed at over 19 sites in over three states it is very important that we do not draw conclusions on a given crop based on generalities. This study certainly does prove that what may be beneficial in Pendleton, Ore. may not be the best economic or agronomic choice for a grower in Coulee City, Wa. The agronomic variability of each crop that results in a direct impact on the grower's profitability from varies from site to site and crop to crop. The opportunities and agronomic enhancement from alternative crop production extend far beyond the economic impact of a crop during its cycle, it also extends into crops yet to be grown. Enhancements such as increased water infiltration, water use efficiency, disease cycle reduction, weed pressure reduction and increase in organic matter content are only a few of the added benefits of alternative crop production.

2000 Alternate Crop Yield Results
The following graph includes all crops at all 17 PNW research sites.

Pacific Northwest growers can receive actual net income/acre per crop by location. Due to the limitation of space this data was not included in the abstract. Varying agronomic practices performed to successfully raise a specific crop have been taken into account at all locations. The research has still shown that some crops can be raised agronomically, but do to excessive input costs (increased risk) the crop may not be a profitable alternative in a given production area or region.

Chad W. Shelton, CPAg
Western Farm Service
Inland Division Agronomist
10428 West Aero Rd.
Spokane, Wa. 99224
Phone: (509) 838-5007
Fax: (509) 838-5307
E-Mail: cshelton@agriumretail.com