In the Yellowstone River valley, irrigated soybeans are going from small research plots to a few commercial acreages already. One Billings company is prepared to buy soybeans, though at least one grower says he plans to sell the soybeans directly to livestock feeders as a protein source.
"Soybeans could significantly change agriculture in the river valleys of eastern Montana," says Ken Kephart, superintendent at Montana State University's Southern Agricultural Research Center at Huntley. He says soybeans provide a saleable nitrogen-fixing rotation crop. The crop has the added benefit of breaking disease and insect cycles in what often have been sugar beet/malt barley or beet/barley/corn rotations. Kephart's soybean tests over the past three years have averaged better than those grown in other northern soybean areas, though growers still must choose varieties that will mature in Montana.
One of the early converts to soybeans is Brian Schweitzer, a producer with farms near both Forsyth and the Flathead area.
"I planted 130 acres on a center pivot near Forsyth. Kephart has three years of research and he's averaged 100 bushels per acre for the past three years of the variety I planted . . . I don't know what 100 bushel soybeans look like, but mine look awfully good," says Schweitzer. He says he plans to sell his soybeans to area livestock feeders, because Montana imports protein and selling locally will let him reduce freight costs.
Travis Zerface, manager of Peavey Company in Billings, says he is equipped to buy soybeans from local growers this year, assuming the crop comes through with the quality that's been demonstrated at the Southern Agricultural Research Center.
In the past, soybeans were a crop of the American south. Over the years, they have been bred for more northerly climes. Kephart has tested varieties for three seasons during which he averaged 71 bushels per acre across all soybean varieties. He said a first-time soybean grower last year got over 40 bushels per acre, which equals the average yield in established northerly soybean areas like Wisconsin.
The top-performing varieties Kephart tested are commercially available. "Parker" was developed at the University of Minnesota, "Council" at North Dakota State University and "Stride" and "Surge" at South Dakota State University. The Southern Ag Research Center is producing foundation seed of Parker and Surge for area farmers and cooperating with SDSU Soybean Breeder Roy Scott to evaluate soybean lines for adaptation to south-central Montana.
Kephart says all of the varieties require seed inoculation, irrigation and modifying combine headers to cut lower than one would for wheat.
Contact: Ken Kephart (406) 348-3400, Travis Zerface (406) 245-7575, Brian Schweitzer (406) 863-9966