New varieties may offer rotation crop for grass seed acreage, dairy feed
By JOHN SCHMITZ
For the Capital Press
Oregon's Willamette Valley is famous for the many crops that flourish there, but soybeans aren't one of them.
Recently, several grass seed growers and dairymen have been tinkering with the legume, and for several reasons.
"There's a real attempt to try to use soybeans as a summer rotation crop," said Mark Mellbye, Linn County Extension agent for Oregon State University.
Michelle Armstrong, a Wilbur-Ellis field crop agronomist whose father has raised soybeans for his dairy cattle in Gervais and is now looking at marketing the crop for human consumption, said weak grass seed prices have driven more growers to look into the traditional Midwest crop.
Soybeans offer a good rotation alternative, she said.
"Grass seed to wheat isn't much of a rotation," Armstrong said. "You use a lot of the same herbicides, so you don't get control of some weeds. Soybeans give you an alternative rotation for other herbicides."
Soybeans are also a nitrogen fixer that can save grass seed growers significantly when it comes to fertilizer.
Dairy farmers are also looking to soybeans as an on-farm protein source, Armstrong said.
Mellbye said soybeans in the past didn't grow all that well in the valley because of the climate: dry summer days coupled with cool nights.
Now,new varieties are available that are "a little bit better adapted to this region," he said.
If soybeans do catch hold in the Willamette Valley, a lot of the credit will go to OSU crop and soil science professor Clint Shock, who over the last 25 years has bred several varieties more suitable for Oregon's climate and longer growing season.
"It's been a small-scale project because I haven't been able to get funding," said Shock, who works in Malheur County in Eastern Oregon.
Shock said competing with the Midwest on a commodity basis will be difficult. An alternative would be to grow beans better suited for a value-added niche market.
Prior to the recent upsurge in interest, very few growers paid much attention to soybeans, Armstrong said. "Never really more than 20, 30 acres, mostly as a cover crop."
One potential buyer for soybeans in the valley is Willamette Biomass Processors in Rickreall, Ore., where beans are converted into high-protein livestock feed or oil for biodiesel production.
Tomas Endicott, vice president of business development for Willamette Biomass Processors, said that unlike canola, soybeans have a much lower oil content, which is why meal for livestock feed may be a better, non-human market for soybean products.