Peas becoming an important crop

Field peas in Nebraska are pictured in the flowering stage. Many farmers have turned to the crop in central and western Nebraska.

If you see peas on the ingredient list for your dog food, they may have been grown here in Nebraska.

Yellow field peas are hard and dry when harvested and are also used as soup stock and a vegetable protein source for other food products.

However, like the new ad from Nebraska Tourism Office — they’re not for everyone.

Roric Paulman of Sutherland grows a variety of crops and said, “We like them in a rotation,” but they take a higher level of management.

Conrad Nelson of Wallace has been growing peas for four years.

“My theory is they’re a good replacement for summer fallow,” he said, “good for soil health and for efficient water use.”

Paulman said he has also grown a short-season soybean crop following peas. Peas are typically planted in early March and mature in June in Nebraska.

Stranhija Stepanovic, assistant extension educator for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, based in Grant, is researching ways to grow field peas successfully. Although peas are usually grown on dryland, it helps to be able to sprinkler irrigate.

If it gets too hot during the flowering period in June, “we irrigate light amounts to cool the crop down,” he said. “At the research station they made 30 (bushels per acre) under dryland and 55 under irrigation,” with only about an inch of water total applied. “It was all due to the cooling effect of the water.”

The vegetable protein market, including field peas, has a lot of potential, Paulman said, but the cash market is underdeveloped — payments are around $7 per bushel currently; he hopes that improves.

Stepanovic said he just sent a letter to farmers with a survey to determine support for a checkoff for peas, lentils and other pulse crops. Like the corn and soybean checkoffs, it would earmark a small amount from the sale of each bushel to fund research and marketing efforts. The results will be shared with policy developers.

Nelson and Paulman both said weed control can be challenging. Some weeds, like Palmer amaranth, are resistant to available herbicides. In addition, early-emerging broadleaf weeds like pigweeds, kochia and lambsquarter can become established before the peas can grow enough to crowd them out, Paulman said. That is less likely to be a problem if the crop is planted early, Stepanovic said.

Stepanovic recommended plant populations of at least 150,000. That will help plants compete with weeds and also keep them growing upright instead of sprawling on the ground. Sometimes gramoxone, a burndown herbicide, is needed to dry up weeds and ensure that the crop is uniformly dry before harvest, he said.

Paulman’s farm is a pass-through station for other farmers who grow field peas. He bins the peas and grades them, testing for foreign material percentage. He took in 100,000 bushels this year. The peas go to a processor in Iowa, where they are cleaned and may be split. Transportation costs are figured into the price farmers receive, and that reduces profits, he said.

A few grain elevators in Nebraska buy field peas, and some farmers contract with companies like Farmers Business Network or Montana Integrity, which may come to the farm to take delivery.

Zack Heiman, merchandiser for Gavilon Grain in Hastings, said, “The pet food market has definitely increased” in the last couple of years; peas are replacing some of the other grains in the food to provide a good source of fiber, protein and nutrients. Regarding human consumption, “We’ve seen a steady demand for split peas for domestic and foreign consumption for government food aid (401) programs,” he said, for homeless shelters, aid to foreign countries and similar purposes.

He said the peas are sold in large canvas bags, or totes, that each hold one metric ton. They also package in 50-pound bags or ship in bulk in rail cars, just like other grains.

Paulman, whose main crop is popcorn, said it’s good to consider the pros and cons of growing a variety of crops.

“We’re learning every year,” Stepanovic said. He recommended doing a good job on a limited number of acres of field peas. “Plant early,” he said.