Spring bean crops a good option due to strong markets

Seed rates ‘may be too low’ 

The current recommended seed rate of 40/sq m for spring beans maybe too low, according to early results from the Optibean project.

Under the Technology Strategy Board-funded Optibean project, the PGRO is investigating ways of maximising bean yields, including sowing dates, seed rate and spray timings over four years.

In the spring crop trials, Fuego and Tattoo were drilled for target populations of 20, 40, 50 and 60 plants/sq m and at three timings – late February/early March, mid-March and April.

Looking at the data two years in, PGRO’s Shona Johnson highlights that the maximum yields were achieved at 71 plants/sq m in 2012 and 52/sq m in 2013 (actual). “We can’t say yet what is the optimum drilling rate, but it looks as if we can up the rate from the current 40/sq m.” 

Strong export markets, coupled with new varieties offering a real step up in yield, could see a spring bean resurgence in the coming years, starting this season.

The key premium market is exports for human consumption in north Africa, the main importer being Egypt.

In Egypt, beans are used in falafels, humous as well as the national dish – ful medames (Egyptian-style breakfast beans), says Franek Smith of pulse trader Dunns.

“It is eaten all year round, but especially during Ramadan, as it helps keep you full during the daily fast,” he says. “Egypt alone uses about 0.5m tonnes a year of fava beans, which equates to 1,500 a day.”

There are three key bean exporters competing for this market – the UK, France and Australia.

“The good news is that the UK has captured a greater slice of the Egyptian market in recent months, now at 45-50% of imports,” he says. This rise in market share is down to French imports being dented by quality problems with bruchid beetle.

“Only 100,000t are predicted to come from France this season, offering opportunities for the UK,” he says.

There is plenty of seed and there are contracts available offering a £25/t premium over feed, he adds.

However, to secure the premium the crop needs to meet specification such as having an even colour and size, a pale hilum and minimal insect damage.

Another growing market is the fish feed sector supplying fish farms in Scotland and Scandinavia, which is currently using up to 35,000t of feed beans.

“Beans are ideal, being high in protein, and bind together the pellets,” he says.

Pulses are also being increasingly used in specialist health markets, such as health snacks and gluten-free foods, he says.

Another factor fuelling the interest in spring beans is the increase in yield from two new varieties, Fanfare and Vertigo, which offer winter yields in a spring crop.

However, Fanfare is the only variety that will be available in commercial quantities for 2014.

LSPB managing director Theo Labuda says Fanfare was launched for the trade last year and 150t of pre-basic seed was planted for multiplication.

A supply of 1,500-2,000t should be available – enough for one-third of the area.

There are also financial benefits across the rotation, with PGRO chief executive Roger Vickers highlighting the residual benefit to the subsequent wheat crop, which is often not included in gross margin calculations when comparing spring crop options.

For example, the reduction in the amount of nitrogen that needs to be applied to the following wheat as a result of the free biologically fixed nitrogen residue can be deducted from the cost of growing wheat.

“This typical N residue following a pulse equates to about £35/ha saving,” says Mr Vickers.

Typical gross margin for spring beans
Yield £4.2/ha**
Price £245/t**
Revenue £1,029/ha

Variable costs


Gross margin £798/ha
Margin (including residual benefits) £988/ha
Source: John Nix and PGRO**

There is also the wheat yield boost. “If we assume a 10-15% yield benefit from a first wheat – equating to roughly 1t/ha – this is worth £155. When added to the nitrogen savings, these add about £190/ha to the true gross margin of the preceding pulse crop.”

However, pulses are not without issues and need care and attention to detail in their selection, cropping, harvesting and storage. “But when managed by growers as a valuable crop in their own right they can produce outstanding results year on year,” says Mr Vickers.

One risk to growers securing the human market premiums is bruchid beetle damage – the familiar round holes in beans. It can prove very costly, as excess damage results in the crop being rejected and failing to secure the premium.

Helping growers to secure these premium markets is BruchidCast, a tool being developed by PGRO and Syngenta to help growers make spraying decisions.

“We have successfully developed a trap using plant volatiles to lure the insect and help monitor adult activity, says PGRO principle technical officer Becky Ward. “It replicates the bean flower.”

Activity is very temperature dependent. Adults appear in spring or summer, usually when temperatures exceed 20C for a number of days, and lay their eggs on the flowers, young pods or seed of bean crops, boring into the young pod and seed. Larvae pupate and hatch into adults that bore out of the seed, leaving the characteristic exit holes which ruin the bean’s appearance.

“The traps work and we have gathered a lot of data on the amount of damage to seed. The tool has been tested and is now being fully rolled out to benefit growers, offering alerts and providing up to five days’ warning by postcode,” she says. There is also weather information helping with decisions on when to spray.

Winter drilling can achieve 3t/ha  

Drilling winter varieties in the spring can still deliver reasonable yields, according to work carried out by PGRO.

The wet winter of 2012 saw many winter crops not get drilled and there was a shortage of spring seed because of the greater demand. This left some growers with just winter seed, considering if it was worth drilling it in the spring and wondering whether they would get a crop.

“Yes, we did get a crop when drilled in late February/early March and it achieved 3t/ha,” says PGRO’s Shona Johnson. “Harvest dates were not as late as we thought, being only a fortnight behind winter-drilled. This shows it is an option if you get caught out.”  

See also: Two new heavyweight spring beans pack punch

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