Research aims to bolster nitrogen fixation for fababeans

By diving deep into nitrogen fixation, researchers are on the verge of potentially making fababeans a more palatable pulse to grow.

They have been screening a variety of rhizobium strains at the University of Saskatchewan to see which ones work best. A rhizobium strain is the key ingredient in an inoculant that allows for nitrogen fixation.

Diane Knight, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture strategic research chair in soil biological processes and professor of soil science at the University of Saskatchewan, is leading the project.

She said that when she began working on it about eight years ago, an inoculant that had once been used for fababeans could no longer be applied to the crop. The company decided to change the rhizobium stain in the product, she added, meaning it could only work for peas and lentils.

At the time, farmers were phoning her with some concerns. There appeared to be no products available.

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“It’s not a big crop so they weren’t terribly concerned about it, but that’s what triggered this research,” she said.

“We wanted to start looking at other rhizobium strains that would work well.”

The research team first began gathering different rhizobium strains, screening them in a lab setting to see how they would fix nitrogen. From there, they narrowed down the number of strains and tested them in an indoor environment.

Knight said they were getting promising results from two rhizobium strains, so they decided to test them outside in the field. After more screening outside, the strains still managed to hold up well.

“They still had good nitrogen fixation,” she said.

Knight is now hoping to receive more funds to see if these rhizobium strains work for peas and lentils. She said farmers would be more willing to buy an inoculant that works on a variety of pulses.

If all goes well, she said a company could come forward to make a commercially available inoculant with these strains.

“We do have a company that is interested in it,” she said, though she couldn’t say which company.

“They are providing a little bit of funding for this next stage that we’re trying to get more funding for.”

Even though there were no fababean inoculants when Knight began the project, Acceleron BioAg has since come out with a product that works for the crop. However, she said having more choice in the marketplace would be beneficial. As well, these strains would be well suited for Western Canada.

“Inoculants are a necessary tool,” she said.

“In terms of economics of a farm, it’s a huge saving on nitrogen fertilizer. For the environment, it has a bigger impact because we’re not leeching nitrogen fertilizer out. Some evidence suggests pulses generate fewer greenhouse gases.”

While having more available inoculants won’t necessarily grow fababean acreage because the market will likely dictate that, Knight said new products will make the crop easier to grow.

It could be an alternative to other pulses such as peas, especially when pea disease is problematic. As well, fababeans have the highest reported nitrogen fixation of 70 to more than 90 percent. Peas and lentils generally hover around 60 percent.

She said fababeans could fit well in the black soil zone, particularly in wetter areas.

“They are really large and take up a lot of water,” she said.

“They need to be grown in areas with soil moisture. It’s not necessarily adapted to every region.”

She said one of the crop’s downsides is that its nitrogen residues after harvest aren’t as good as peas. It appears the beans’ residues stay in the seed while in peas it’s left in the stalk.

Dave Greenshields, director of research and development with the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, said the project is important because it could help farmers get more yield out of the beans. The commission contributed $174,996 for the project.

“These strains are better adapted to western Canadian conditions and they can scale it up for fababeans,” he said.

“It never hurts to have the right tools in place. If we get the market potential, we can hit the ground running.”

Contact jeremy.simes@producer.com

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